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Newsletter Archive 2012

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Sake World Newsletter


April 2012


  • Mirin
  • Pressing Matters
  • Sake Basics: Regionality
  • Did You Know? Taruzake
  • Events and Announcements
    Sake Education Central


Mirin. What it is, and what it is not.

As this newsletter goes out, the cherry blossoms here are (finally) in full bloom. The coldest winter in a quarter century led to a late blooming of the ubiquitous and ephemeral flowers, and in days the whole thing will be over for yet another year. The next Sake Professional Course, with Certified Sake Professional certification testing, will take place July 18 to 20 in Chicago. "No sake stone remains left unturned" in this, the most thorough sake educational program on the planet. More information can be found here, and if you are interested in making a reservation, or have any questions at all, by all means feel free to email me. Enjoy the newsletter, and the weather as well, John.

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Mirin. What it is, and what it is not...
Lately, mirin has has been getting a bit of attention around the world as an almost indispensible pillar of cooking, certainly in Japanese cuisine, but outside of that box as well. Let's look at what mirin is, and what it is not. For those not familiar with it, it is an amber liquid, with its fair share of alcohol that is used as an ingredient or condiment.

First of all, while mirin is often referred to as sweet cooking sake, it is not sake. Not even close, actually. While sake producers often also make mirin, it is a totally different animal. In fact, while it may have as much as 14 percent alcohol, there is no sugar-to-alcohol fermentation at all in the production itself of mirin.

Mirin is made by starting with shochu, a distilled beverage, and mixing it with koji (rice onto which a mold has been propagated) and steamed rice. Over the next two to three months, the koji will turn the starches in the rice to sugar, add a handful of other stuff like amino acids, and the shochu base dissolves it all nicely. No yeast is used at this stage, and no more alcohol results. That's right: no more alcohol is created during the mirin production process; all the alcohol in mirin was there from the start, courtesy of the shochu from which it all began.

So mirin is not sake, and does not go through alcoholic fermenation.

Of course, it does resemble sake in that rice, koji and liquid are mixed! But note, too, that the rice used in making mirin is not sake rice. Nor is it table rice. It is called "mochi-gome," or glutinous rice. The difference between this and regular rice is that mochi-gome gets really sticky and soft when cooked. This is why it is used neither for eating nor for sake production, yet that character itself is essential to making good mirin.

Mochi-gome is used for making mochi, i.e. pounded rice cakes. Chewy, delicious, mochi is great in so many ways, with sweet beans or powder, in soup, and much more. But back to mirin.

Mirin has been around for about 400 years. Originally, folks would drink it. But as it came into use as a condiment, producers began to make it thicker and sweeter. It can add a pleasant but mellow sweetness to food, bring out aromas, and mask or subdue obnoxious fishy smells.

Note, the above production process refers to true mirin, real mirin, sometimes referred to as "hon-mirin" ("the real thing" mirin). There are other, cheaper types that are sold as mirin but are really just cheaper, artificial substitutes. These have about one percent alcohol only, and rather than have flavor gained from the traditional slow, two to three month process involving koji and rice, simple flavorings are mixed together. For some it suffices; rarely is it used in cuisine that is prepared properly.

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Pressing Matters: Every Drop is Different
Earlier this year, I visited Chiyo Musubi in Tottori Prefecture together with the Sake Brewer Tours group. After touring the kura, we were fortunate enough to be able to taste through a line-up of their sake together with both the president and the new toji (master brewer). In that line-up there were two bottles of daiginjo, one labeled A1, the other B2. We were told that they were both from the same batch, and that it was shizuku (drip pressed) sake. Before asking too much, we dutifully if not so quietly tasted through them. They were, indeed, noticeably different. A1 seemed more pronounced in melon-tinged aromas, B2 seemed richer in flavor. But they were, we were reminded, from the same batch. Why the pronounced differences? In short, pressing matters.

"It's shizuku," explained the toj, as we tasted. "We have perhaps 3000 liters of moromi (fermenting mash) to be drip pressed, right? And we have to put it into small ten liter bags, then hang them in a small tank and let it drip out, right? Well, we cannot do it all at once as the tanks are too small. And we cannot use larger drip tanks 'cuz we risk excessive oxidation. So we have to do it using several small tanks, lined up one after the other, like this," referring to his crude drawing on the whiteboard.

What it indicates is that there are perhaps 30 bags of moromi dripping away into one small moto-(yeast starter)-sized tank. And they have several of these lined up next to each other. The first tank is Tank A, the next is Tank B, and the one after that is Tank C.

As the dripping sake fills the bottom of these small tanks, it is then bled into an 18-liter bottle known as a to-bin (pronounced toe-bean). Once Tobin Numero Uno is full, they replace that with Tobin #2 and fill that up, followed by Tobin #3.

Astute readers will have already seen the larger picture, I am sure. In other words, the bottle labeled A1 was Tobin #1 taken from Tank A, and B2 was Tobin #2 taken from Tank B. And all are different. Some drastically, others less so.

Why would this be? From whence might these differences spring? From many things, actually. The concentration of the moromi will be different in each bag, if slightly. The pressure applied to each will be subtly different. The amount of oxygen it sees, the content of each bag - alcohol, rice lees, flavor components and other "parts" - will all vary slightly from tank to tank, bag to bag, moment to moment, and drop to drop. And accordingly, the nature of the sake will change as this separation-from-the-lees step takes place. Ultimately, every drop is different.

The same thing happened on a visit to Eikun in Kyoto, earlier in the year: two sake from the same batch, just taken at different times in the pressing. The difference was that, for Eikun, what we tasted was contest sake, and not just any contest sake, but a potential record breaker. If Eikun wins a gold medal this year in the National New Sake Appraisal next month, it will be their 15th consecutive gold, a new record. Our group was asked which we preferred, but I hope they do not base their decision on our opinion!

So, while every drop is different, that does not mean it is random. Brewers know what to expect and can make predictions based on experience on just where the best sake will be. For example, I have heard one say that "usually, Tobin #25 to #35 holds the best stuff. We taste those, and pick the best amongst those to send to contests." The rest, of course, will usually be mixed back up and sold as another product. Only the best out of the middle of it all will be earmarked for potential greatness.

On a more practical note, one that you can use in your daily sake life, we have just learned that when any sake is pressed, the nature and quality will vary based on just when it comes out of the press (or dripping bags, as the case may be). Since it is not really practical for brewers to apply the "every drop is different" philosophy to anything but competition sake, they often divide it into three large divisions.

The first stuff to come out is a bit too rough, and the last part to come out is a bit too weary and thin. So the middle third or so is generally considered the best. Many brewers mix all three for consistency. Others, however, will separate off the middle-third  and market that separately.

That middle goodness is listed on labels as "Naka-dare," or "Naka-gumi," so if you see that on a label, you will know it is at least a cut above the rest. While the first third or even the last third can have its appeal too, usually it is the naka-dare that deserves the spotlight.

So seek the middle ground in all things, not the least of which is your sake.

* * * * * * * *

Sake Basics: Regionality
Does sake have regionality? In other words, like wine, does sake from one part of Japan have an identifiable profile, and sake from another part of Japan have a different set of flavors, aromas and character? Yes, to some degree, sake flavor profiles are tied to region. However, it is a bit more vague than it would be for other beverages, such as wine. Many regions have an identifiable style, but others do not. And within any one region that has an identifiable style to it, not all sake in that region will necessarily correspond. But for the most part, the answer is yes. What affects that? A veritable plethora of things. Climate, cuisine, rice, water and more. But many things dilute that regionality as well: climate controlled facilities, climactic changes, changing culinary lifestyles, distribution systems that enlarge a brewery's market. And the lists go on for both contributing and detracting factors. But yes, sake does have regionality to it, and yes, it is a fascinating topic to study.

* * * * * * * *

Did You Know? Taruzake
Taruzake is sake that has been stored for a short time (like several days to several weeks) in a taru, a wooden cask holding usually 72 liters. This is done to deliberately instill a cedar-like woodiness to the flavors and aromas. Long ago, sake was brewed in wooden tanks, stored in them, then shipped in the wooden casks (i.e. taru) to their destination where it was (watered down and then) sold to consumers straight from the cask. Back then, though, sake was richer, fuller, sweeter and more able to stand up to the woodiness imparted onto it by its shipping benefactor, the cask. These days, most sake is much more refined and delicate, and the woodiness can be extremely obvious and overpowering. That does not mean it is not tasty! Like all things, if done right, it is quite enjoyable indeed. If you like woody flavors and aromas, that is. But it can be overdone to the point that wood is all you taste and smell. It is, of course, a matter of preference. There are but a few producers that provide a regular supply of taru-zake. Taruhei from Yamagata, Ichinokura from Miyagi, Kenbishi from Hyogo, and Sawanoi from Tokyo are a few. There are others as well. Taruzake is always worth a taste! While not as subtle as most sake, you may grow to be quite fond of it. Check it out when you next have a chance.

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Announcements and Events
Sake Professional Course
July 18 to 20 in Chicago, Illinois

The next Sake Professional Course will take place July 18 to 20, at the offices of Tenzing Wine and Spirits in downtown Chicago, Illinois. The Sake Professional Course, with Sake Education Council-recognized Certified Sake Professional certification testing, is by far the most intensive, immersing, comprehensive sake educational program in existence. Three days of classroom lectures and tastings leave "no sake stone unturned."The tuition for the course is $799. For more information about the daily schedule and to read a handful of testimonials, click here . Feel free to contact me directly at with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation. All marketing noise and shameless self-promotion aside, this course is already filling up quite fast. As such, interested parties should email me soon to make a reservation. For more information about the daily schedule and to read a handful of testimonials, click here. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions about the course, or to make a reservation.   

Sake Education Council
Please take a moment to check out the website for the Sake Education Council, the organization behind the Certified Sake Professional and Advanced Sake Professional certifications. We plan to grow steadily, strongly and continually, and we will need the support of all those that love sake to do so. Follow us through the "usual suspects" of social media.

Sake Homebrewer's Online Store
Please be sure to check out for supplies, information and a forum, including lots of supporting information on everything from recipes to history. I have been meaning to mention this site and the gentleman behind it, Will Auld, but have repeatedly forgotten in past newsletters. The site is replete with instruction, augmented with videos, schedules, and more. If you are even remotely interested check this site out right away.


For Your iPhone & iPod: The Sake Dictionary App.
Newly improved, now with audio, and drastically reduced in price to $0.99!
Get it here:

There you are, perusing a menu, or standing in front of a shelf of great sake, or perhaps reading a sake newsletter… and up pops one of those hairy, pesky sake terms in Japanese. You know you have heard it many times, but dammit, you just cannot remember what it means now…

No problem! Just whip out your iPhone or iPod and fire up your trusty old version of The Sake Dictionary. In a matter of seconds, you'll be amongst the cognoscenti once again. But… if only you could pronounce it properly. Now that would really rock!

Done! Just tap on the term and you will hear a clear example of how to pronounce the term in Japanese. Repeat it a couple of times and the term is yours for eternity, to toss about and impress your mates.

What's more, it's less! Less than what it cost before, much less. Like less than one-seventh less. For a limited time only, the audio-enhanced version of The Sake Dictionary iPhone app is available for a mere $0.99.

The Sake Dictionary is a concise little package of all the terms you might ever come across when dealing with sake. Almost 200 of them - including sake grades, rice variety names, seasonal sake terms, special varieties, rare types, post-brewing processing words and the myriad terms used in sake production - many of which are not even familiar to the average Japanese person on the street - are listed up here with concise, useful and clear definitions and the written Japanese version as well. And now, with the new audio component, you can listen and learn just how to pronounce those terms properly.

Start to toss around Japanese sake terms like you were raised knowing them! Gain a level of familiarity hitherto unimaginable! Avoid frustrating paralysis when faced with a sake-related purchase!

Get your copy of The Sake Dictionary now and never be confused by sake terms - or how to pronounce them - again.

Get it here:

(Note if you have already purchased it, this upgrade to the audio version is free. Just go to iTunes and get it!)      


Sake's Hidden Stories
I am very pleased to announce the publication of my new ebook, Sake's Hidden Stories, subtitled The Personalities, Philosophies, and Tricks-of-the-Trade Behind the Brew.

Sake's Hidden Stories ($14.99) will give you a view to what goes on in the sake industry behind the brew we all love so much. The book goes into stories much deeper than the information we most commonly encounter; way beyond simply what ginjo-shu is, what junmai-shu is, or what the role of koji is. You will learn about the personalities behind the sake. You will see in just how much detail some brewers make sake, and how each is different in where importance is placed. And most significantly, something that has not been written about in any book on sake in English, you will meet more than a dozen brewers, and encounter their personalities. You'll see what makes them tick, what drives them in their work, and how their histories and idiosyncrasies affect the sake they brew.

For more information on content and get your copy, go here.As with any ebook or informational product I offer, satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. If you don't like it or feel it was worth what you paid for it, I will cheerfully refund your money. Finally, for a nice third-party review of the book, check out this cool blog.


Sake Educational Products
Jump-start your sake savvy

Just a reminder to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. We offer three products, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.
First is The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.
Next is The Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.
Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.


More information on the following topics can be found at

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

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link:
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.

Copyright 1999-2012

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