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Sake World Newsletter


March 2007



Popular Sake in Japan

Popular Sake in Japan
April 07 Issue of Dancyu: All Things Sake

The question of what is new, trendy, hot and popular in the sake world these days is one that often arises. It's always hard to answer because in the sake world, most trends are sporadic anomalies doomed fizzle into a slow death. Also, orthodox premium sake still has so much to offer, and so much room for penetration into the world psyche that it is hard to recommend tangential products.

But in the interest of providing as comprehensive an answer as possible, allow me to base the content of this issue on the April issue of Dancyu magazine, here in Japan. Dancyu is a gourmet magazine, focusing on traditional Japanese food and drink. Every year in the spring, they do a sake issue, and although last year's was drastically toned down, this year's has come roaring back with a mighty vengeance. (Those interested in obtaining a copy of the mag will fine information related to that at the end of this article.) Here is a synopsis of some of the more useful informatoin contained therein.

Recently Popular Sake
One of the main articles focused on a blind tasting performed by 11 sake and food journalists, replete with a listing of the top sake in each of several categories, including junmai ginjo and honjozo, and a listing of a wide range of generally good sake to look for. While the resulting list of 23 sake was useful (and reproduced below), even more interesting were the results of sake popularity surveys amongst consumers. If you want to know what Japanese consumers think is good, read on.

The most popular ten brands from the survey this year (2007) were:

  1. Hakkaisan (Niigata)
  2. Kubota (Niigata)
  3. Juyondai (Yamagata)
  4. Denshu (Aomori)
  5. Shimeharitsuru (Niigata)
  6. Kokuryu (Fukui)
  7. Shinkame (Saitama)
  8. Masumi (Niigata)
  9. Dassai (Yamaguchi)
  10. Hiroki (Fukushima)

Now, check out the same list from 2002:

  1. Hakkaisan (Niigata)
  2. Juyondai (Yamagata)
  3. Kubota (Niigata)
  4. Shimeharitsuru (Niigata)
  5. Denshu (Aomori)
  6. Dewazakura (Yamagata)
  7. Kokuryu (Fukui)
  8. Masumi (Niigata)
  9. Shinkame (Saitama)
  10. Tengumai (Ishikawa)

Well, surprise, surprise; very little has changed in consumer tastes in the last five years. While all the brands above are of sterling quality, what the above says is that few people are trying anything new. Not that anything is wrong with that. But with so many fine artisan sake to choose from, it is a tad surprising - if not disappointing - that were so few changes to that list in five years. But still, it is a great list to shove into your wallet and refer to when out and about.

Sake to Watch
Now this one is tricky. Usually, this is one of the things I like about Dancyu: I can always count on them for turning me on to good sake with an interesting story behind it to which I was hitherto not privy. But... I dunno.

Sometimes this ends up migrating to the other end of the silliness spectrum than the one occupied by the popularity rankings above. In other words, in their efforts to present and promote sake that readers do not yet know, stuff that has a newsworthy story, and perhaps even have a hand in making such stuff popular, they end up grasping at straws.

More concretely, three kura were highlighted as the "three brands to know to understand the sake of today." All I can say is: Hmmmmmmm.

I ended up fortuitously being able to taste two of them one night recently. One was outstanding for sure. But I know the toji there, and he arrived a couple of years ago from another kura I know, and seems to be one of those latent genius types that has found his stride. That sake was deep, focused, layered, full and clean. But one other of the three proved less than overwhelming.

I was with a handful of brewers in town for a meeting, and we crowded into the hidden sake pub Tsukushinoko. (They do not let magazines or newspapers write them up, fearing it would impose upon their regular clientele, so if you find it, don't tell 'em you read it here.) On my right was Tomita-san of "Seven Spears," formally known as Shichihonyari, of Shiga Prefecture. He found out they had two of the three on the list, and ordered them. We got da goods and sipped away. One was the sake I already knew; the other presented itself as below. 

Hmm. In short, it was overly simple. Comprised of basically a tubular sweetness with admittedly brilliantly clean sides and underbelly, it stopped perhaps an angstrom short of cloying. There was admittedly balance and uniformity with the aromas, but Tomita-san's comment was, "Well, it's a good sake for beginners, ya know?" True, true. No big complaints, but certainly no complexity to go in search of. Another brewer on my left, one I like to (flatteringly) think of as "The Rice Nazi" due to his fanaticism (albeit nonstandard, if not misguided) on rice, went off on some rice-production tangent related to the sake's weak points that may or may not have been relevant, but was way over my head nonetheless.

My point is not to diss the sake that was highlighted, but rather to emphasize that no matter what anyone says, be it a great publication like Dancyu, or any other sake authority, remember that *most* have less than pure reasoning in reporting, even if their intentions are good, and most importantly: taste for yourself. That is all you need to do, and all that really matters in the end. 'Nuff said.

If you are interested and literate, there are many other cool things in this issue of Dancyu, including an excellent listing of 100 places to buy good sake all over Japan, half a dozen other lists of sake to look for, a couple dozen more recommendations (some we have seen before, others we have not), an article in which I appear (albeit grossly misquoted) on describing sake profiles, and more. That "more" includes stuff about pairing sake, highlights of kura like Masumi in Nagano, biggish Takashimizu and tiny Fuku Komachi in Akita, Niigata sake in general, and sparkling sake. There is even a piece reviewing a dozen sake that are certified organic products. More on organic sake can be found here, for those that are interested:

Perhaps the thing that made me most overflow with joy was a short piece on traditional sake accompaniments, small, intensely flavored salty ditties known as saka-na (a homonym for the word for fish, written with different characters). Smoky, highly fermented pickles, dried and fermented fish, highly fermented and aged fish called funa-zushi that makes limburger cheese smell like perfume... curiosities like these. I personally dig this stuff big time, and now I know where to buy it and have it delivered.

In the end, if you are literate in the written Japanese language, this issue of Dancyu will provide oodles of great sake-related information. But even if you cannot read, there are plenty of pictures of immensely recommendable labels to learn about, and with just a bit of help from a literate friend, the magazine will surely prove very useful.

So where can you get it? Well, if you and your computer can handle da lingo, go to Dancyu's site at and you can purchase it using a credit card and have it mailed anywhere in the world. If not, contact a bookstore like Kinokuniya in New York and Los Angeles (at least) and purchase it there. If it is not in stock, you can order it.

For the sake of thoroughness, the top 23 sake in the blind tasting were as follows. The first three were list as first, second and third, but after that they were all kinda lumped together. But the names are worth remembering and searching for.

Hiroki (Junmai Ginjo, Fukushima Prefecture), Naraman (Junmai Ginjo, Fukushima), Takemichi (Junmai Ginjo, Shimane), Yuuho (Junmai Ginjo, Ishikawa), Isojiman (Junmai Ginjo, Shizuoka), Akaya (Junmai Ginjo, Fukuoka), Taka (Junmai Ginjo, Yamaguchi), Kikuyoi (Junmai Ginjo, Shizuoka), Ishizuchi (Junmai Ginjo, Ehime), Azuma Ichi (Junmai Ginjo, Saga), Haku Raku Sei (Junmai Ginjo, Miyagi), Daina (Junmai Ginjo, Tochigi), Mikawaya Bandaiho (Junmai Ginjo, Fukushima), Jokigen (Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata), Yamagata Masumune (Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata), Mikotsuru (Junmai Ginjo, Nagano), Sawanohana (Junmai Ginjo, Nagano), Fusoutsuru (Junmai Ginjo, Shimane), Houken (Junmai Ginjo, Hiroshima), Tatenoi (Junmai Ginjo, Akita), Kuri Koma Yama (Junmai Ginjo, Miyagi), Daijiro (Junmai Ginjo, Shiga), Yorokobi Gaijin (Junmai Ginjo, Kagawa). 

Hakarime in Ginza for Eel and (warm) Sake
Should you visit Tokyo, the restaurant Hakarime in Ginza, just across the main street from the Kabuki Theatre, is an excellent and scrumptious place to enjoy a wide range of sake, much of it offered lovingly warmed, and a whole feast of dishes focused on anago, or conger eel.

You never knew just how many parts of an eel were edible, and just in how many ways it could be made so delicious. While the menu is extensive, by far the easiest and most enjoyable way to go about things is one of the courses, priced at 3500, 3800, 4800 and 7000 yen. Just sit back and let it flow.

There is a long, gleaming counter that avails you to a lot of the cooking action, but several small private rooms as well. It is a very comfortable, friendly environment with warm and attentive servers. The food has been excellent both times I have visited, and the meals end up lingering on and on as I find myself wanting to leave less and less. Damn those last trains home.

Not only all this, but English *should* get you through your visit. I say *should* because they have an English menu and site, but both times I have been there their versatility in the spoken language went untested. But it should be fine, methinks.

For more information on the restaurant, visit Be sure to check out their fine list of sake, at Should you choose to wander into the realm of premium warmed sake, this is the place to check that out. You can choose between about ten different temperature ranges (yes, it makes a huge difference) for any given sake, and they present it in a small pewter vessel after warming it delicately and precisely.

Should reticence rule your reasoning when it comes to warming premium sake, try one of these to become a believer: Daishichi, Shinkame, Hikomago, or Okuharima. While Tokyo alone has countless sake pubs, each with their own unique allure, Hakarime has immediately become one of my favorites.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar March 31, 2007
The next sake seminar at Takara is scheduled for Saturday, March 31, 2007. The topic will be "Raw Materials: Sake Rice, Water and Yeast."  Also in attendance to provide a seminar on Japanese pottery will ceramics luminary Rob Yellin. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me from my site at

Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More information on the following topics can be found at

  • Sake Homebrewing
  • Books on Sake
  • Information on the archives of this newsletter
  • Genereal information related to this publication

All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
1-4-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003


Copyright 1999

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