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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2002

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The information in this column usually covers the gamut of sake nomenclature, types and brewing methods, as well as culture, history and the occasional oddities. But beyond the single recommendation in each column, rarely does it address the question, "So, uh, what are the good sake? What should I be drinking?"

That's a tough one for me to answer. What tastes good to me may not taste the same to you, and what you prize may not impress me. However, since most people don't have the time or the liver to drink sake from all of Japan's 1,600 or so breweries, they gladly welcome recommendations.

The opinion of one person -- no matter who that might be -- is obviously limited in its usefulness. So it's helpful to look at what sake lovers in Japan prefer to imbibe, since such information can be tremendously useful when making a decision at a restaurant or a shop.

Dancyu, a food and entertainment magazine, recently polled its readers on what brand names of sake they preferred. This alone should cause suspicion, since recommending only brand names and not specific grades of those sake allows people to just parrot what they've heard elsewhere. But let's briefly suspend our cynicism and take a look at the results.

The top 10 were: Hakkaisan (Niigata), Juyondai (Yamagata), Kubota (Niigata), Shimeharitsuru (Niigata), Denshu (Aomori), Dewazakura (Yamagata), Kokuryu (Fukui), Masumi (Nagano), Tengumai (Ishikawa) and Shinkame (Saitama).

All are indeed wonderful sake, but note the dominance of Niigata sake. Its light, dry style has been very popular in Japan for decades and, evidently, is still so.

Surprising (to me, anyway) was the fact that Koshi no Kanbai, that revered Niigata sake, was down at No. 12. Also, Isojiman (Shizuoka) -- one of my personal faves -- was a mere 16. Oh, well.

Another survey of note comes from the sake media company Fullnet. Their most recent edition of "Jizake Ninki Ranking (Popular Sake Rankings)" for 2001 approached the issue a bit differently. For one thing, they had different lists for various grades of premium sake: honjozo, junmaishu, junmai ginjo, ginjo and daiginjo.

There were significant differences in the sake on each list. Also, the surveys were distributed to sake pubs all over Japan, not to consumers, and based on what sells best by the glass.

Looking at only one of the classes, junmai ginjo, the top sake were: Shimeharitsuru, Hakkaisan, Urakasumi (Miyagi), Juyondai, Kokuryu, Isojiman, Masumi, Tateyama (Toyama), Kudoki Jozu (Yamagata) and Suigei (Kochi).

Not that it really matters, but I see this list as being a bit more useful and based on more informed opinion. (Incidentally, Fullnet has a diverse range of informative books on a wide range of sake-related topics. Check them out at www.fullnet. )

A word about Juyondai: The output of this brewery became very popular about 10 years ago, and yet they staunchly resisted the temptation to raise prices or increase production. Good for them. The downside is that makes it somewhat elusive. It is indeed outstanding an sake in the opinion of many, many people.

A recent publication announced this as the "Post Juyondai Era." Huh? Such reports of the death of Juyondai have been greatly exaggerated. It's still wildly popular and deservedly so.

Also, a note about Koshi no Kanbai (reviewed below): This sake is the granddaddy of hyper-popular sake. It led the way in the "jizake boom" of the '70s and '80s, when sake from small rural breweries came into the spotlight. They are not small anymore, though, nor are they cheap.

It is good to keep in mind the role of the media in all of this. Very often, one or two magazines will latch on to a good sake and boost it to almost sacred status. This is both boon and bane, as it presents the brewery with a plethora of challenges to face as its popularity soars -- and very often descends again.

While nothing can replace tasting enough to be able to know your preferences for styles as well as specific sake, trying what the tippling throngs say is good can be informative. Very often they are right. If they are not, you will know why.

Koshi no Kanbai (Niigata Prefecture)

There are many manifestations of Koshi no Kanbai, and some of them can be quite expensive. The thread of distinction that runs through all of their sake would best be described as light, crisp, incredibly clean, yet well-rounded and flavorful. Perhaps the best value of their line is the very reasonably priced Muku tokubetsu junmai, but the Chotokusen daiginjo is a must-try as well.

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The Japan Times: March 17, 2002
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