Despite the widespread popularity of sushi and the growing appreciation of Japanese Izakaya sake in the US, the world of sake remains largely enigmatic.
That’s not to say sake–more properly, “Nihonshu”–isn’t known here . But the variety and complexity of Japan’s national spirit is far from over-exposed.
Which is why the “Shinkansen to Shibuya” celebration was one of the highlights of Bon Appetit Magazine’s Vegas Uncork’d event earlier this month. Named for Japan’s high speed train system, Shinkansen brought to the Las Vegas MGM Grand resort’s Shibuya restaurant an authentic, modern taste of Japanese tradition at a current dance tempo. Though some might argue that the white-wigged, fur-bikinied go-go girls distracted from the sake appreciation, I understand how some might think it added to the aesthetic experience.
While chefs Yoshinori Nakazawa and Stephane Chevet oversaw a team producing creative sushi and teppanyaki stations, much of the ultra-modern dining rooms were overtaken by tables lined with dozens of sake bottles, each offering distinctive blends of the brewed rice liquor—closer to beer than wine in composition, though sake is typically higher in alcohol content (up to 20%) than either.
Even Shibuya’s sommeliers, Eric Swanson and Alysia Wren, admitted there were many sakes they hadn’t tried. I managed about 20 before my ability to distinguish sweet from sour, floral from earthy, and wall from floor became compromised.
Here were the sakes that stood out for me:
•The aptly-named “Pride of the Vilage” Junmai Ginjo, produced by Sudo Honke Shuzo, which at 850 years old, is considered Japan’s oldest brewery still in operation. A light fruity nose yields to grape and pear notes, a semi-dry full body with a nutty –anise finish.
• Mizbasho Ginjo (2008 Gold Medal in the US National Sake Appraisal) has a moderately full body with a soft nose of melon and pistachio and an earthy acidic finish which would pair well with yakitori or soy-glazed black cod.
Two Junmai Daiginjos:
•One of my favorites, Yuki No Bosha (a.k.a. “Cabin In the Snow”) has a very sweet, crisp apple flavor, with a fragrant full body, pairing well with robata and spicy food.
•Tentaka “Silent Stream” produces pear and lychee aromas, followed by pear-nectarine flavors with a creamy mouth feel, finishing earthy with notes of grass and licorice.
•Kurosawa Kimoto is made in the rare Junmai Kimoto process (the rice polishing rate is a high 65%), yielding a strong alcohol effect over an unsual palette of flavors; tasting notes mention “waxy rice candy wrapper [and] grainy dough” but I focused on honey and nutty-rice.
•I often enjoy Nigori sakes—unfiltered nihonshu with sediment which gives it a milky mouth feel. Rihaku “Dreamy Clouds” is a particularly impressive one with a Junmai Ginjo-level of milling, and flavors of steamed rice and nuts.
•Although Ho-Ho Shu is the popular choice in sparkling sakes (and a good one) another I tried here was Kitaya Ai No Hime with passionfruit and citrus sweetness. Light, low alcohol.
•Ichinokura Himizen “Princess Food” Junmai is perhaps the most aptly named—the low-alcohol sweet sake with floral, citrus and passion fruit flavors would pair excellently with desserts, pastries, and soft cheese.
•Ume no Yado Aragoshi is actually not Nihonshu, but Umeshu, sweet liquor made by fermenting plums in sake (or just combining puree and sake). It tastes exactly as you’d think—very sweet, apricot/plum flavor with an earthy finish.
Although I typically leave a tasting feeling more informed, after this one, I found myself echoing the Tao Le Ching quote: “The more you know, the less you understand.” I guess that just means I’ll have to do more research.
Photos courtesy of Vegas Uncork’d Presented by Bon Appétit/Isaac Brekken