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Newsletter Archive 2007

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Sake World Newsletter


May 2007



Awamori, Plus Shopping at Narita

Last month, in the discussions surrounding the color of koji, I mentioned awamori, the distilled beverage indigenous to Okinawa, Japan's southern-most prefecture, a place that was once independent and known as the Ryukyu kingdom. Awamori is only made in Okinawa, and there are currently but 47 producers of this beverage left.

While more is written about this wonderful spirit on my site, in an nutshell, awamori is made from Thai rice (i.e. Indica, or long grain rice, not the short-grained Japonica that is used in sake brewing) that is actually imported en masse from Thailand. Why, you ask, do they not grow it nearby? Because one, it will not grow well in Okinawa, and two, no one on the mainland would bother to grow something so different from the cash crop rice for something as frivolous as awamori. Having said that, enough Thai rice is imported from Thailand that there is a little booth of an office for the Thai government located on the grounds of the largest producer, Zuisen (remember that name). 

Next, awamori is made using black koji, which as readers surely recall creates lots of citric acid. This gives awamori its character, as well as allows it to be brewed and then distilled and aged in that tropical climate. Also, unlike sake in which about 25 percent of the rice is made into koji, *all* of the rice in a batch of awamori has been dosed with that black mold. After a quick rough-n-tumble fermentation, it is distilled. The final alcohol content is usually 25 to 30 percent, although some awamori is as high as 43 percent.

More relevant to last month's koji discourse, consider the following. There are kountless strains of koji mold, all floating around in the atmosphere. Note that koji mold is much more prevalent in the air in Asia due to its generally higher humidity. Over the centuries, the various awamori houses each had their own strain that made their awamori unique and special. However, in the utter destruction that befell Okinawa at the end of the war, each and every producer suffered extensive damage, and without exception, all lost their proprietary molds. While they can of course (and ultimately, did) gather new koji mold spores from the air, the generations-old special strains were gone.

Enter Professor Kin'ichiro Sakaguchi of Tokyo University, revered as *the* sake professor. In 1935 during a visit to Okinawa, he had taken some samples of black koji spores, and had one labeled "Zuisen's Mold" buried in his rather extensive collection of molds and yeast strains. It was not until his passing in 1998 that someone found this while rummaging through his belongings in what must have been a very interesting office cleaning.

With minimal expectations for reviving it, it was returned to Zuisen. With great care, they did indeed revive and reconstitute it, succeeding so well that today, all of Zuisen's awamori is made using 100 percent original pre-war Zuisen mold. They are the only of the 47 awamori producers using a strain of koji mold that existed before the war.

Awamori is, in fact, the only distilled beverage that I actually like (to the point of craving it, that is). It is incredibly versatile, and that citric acid from the black koji lends it an earthiness that stands up to about anything you can do to it: mix it with hot water, enjoy it on the rocks, or even straight in small doses. Awamori is remarkably resilient and refreshing when watered way, way down as well. Mixing it with even copious amounts of ice and water (to taste, of course; how far depends on the original alcohol content as well as personal preference) results in something with just enough appealing, licorice-like richness to render it quite the fast-drinking thirst quencher. Not bad for a spirit.

Note, though, that the numerous permutations of both alcohol content and aging will dictate various manners of best enjoying awamori. Experiment and enjoy. There are about ten or so awamori being exported into the US (including the aforementioned Zuisen).

(See for more on awamori.)

Shopping at Narita

Often I am asked about shopping at Narita Airport, just outside of Tokyo. People that have visited Japan want to pick up a good bottle or two on there way home, having presumably not had time to shop while in the city.

The good news is that things are a lot better than they use to be. Not two years ago, all you could find was a bunch of schlock sake and inexpensive touristy stuff, with distractingly ostentatious bottles. Now there is much more to choose from, and much of it mighty nice. The bad news is that I use the same airline all the time and am therefore familiar with just one small section of what might be available. While I do not expect too much variation from terminal to terminal, or airline to airline, one never knows. The following applies to the South Wing of Terminal One (read: United Airlines).

The sake I have found most recommendable there are Kubota Manju at 8381 yen, Kubota Hekiju at 5780 yen, Hakkaisan Daiginjo at 8580 yen, Kamotsuru Daiginjo at 2500 yen, and Toyono Ume at 5000 yen. The last one is NOT available in the US to my knowledge. The others, however, are sold outside Japan. Also, in all honesty, the prices seem to be about a whopping 40 percent higher than retail stores in Tokyo, a point that surprised me. Still, overseas prices often rise to almost double their retail counterparts in Japan. So yes, buying them there will be cheaper than buying them at home, but not nearly as cheap as buying them in Tokyo. So they kind of have you over a (sake) barrel on this one.

And, if you buy them at the airport, since the stores are located on the safe side of the security gates, it's all duty free (oh, boy!), and you can carry it on the plane to boot. At least, that is, as far as your first point of disembarkation in the US.

One sure place to find these is by taking a left out of security (South Wing of Terminal One) and going down about 70 meters to the duty free store on the left, located right across from gate 51. One final note, should you have the chance, the sake selection is infinitely superior at Centrair, the international airport nearest Nagoya.

Sake Consumption in Japan: Dismal Days

While sake was erstwhile the only game in town, domestic consumption of the national beverage has dropped to a shocking eight percent of the total alcohol beverage market. In truth, it has been in decline for a long time, not unlike the traditional indigenous beverages of most countries. Still, eight percent hurts. So what is everyone drinking in Japan?

First and foremost, it's beer, and its low-malt and no-malt variations, industry miscreants that take advantage of lower tax rates to provide the public with reasonable facsimiles of beer that satisfy for less. The above three take up 67 percent or so, depending on where you draw the line of what is beer-like and what is just plain nasty. While wine gets much attention as an encroacher, it is but three percent of all consumed. Shochu is about 11 percent of all the alcohol drunk here, although ready-made cocktails that might use shochu or vodka take up another eight percent.

Back to sake, per capita consumption dropped 3.9 percent to 6.9 liters. Note, though, that most of this drop is inexpensive, bottom shelf sake. The amount of "special designation sake" (honjozo, junmai-shu, and all four types of ginjo-shu) lost just a tad of ground, or in the case of junmai-shu, actually increased over last year.

Nevertheless, this is all far from positive. The problems remain the same: too many other things to choose from, and an image problem amongst younger consumers. But having said all this, many observers think the bottom has been hit, and for a number of reasons, expect at least a moderate turn-around in the near future. Let us hope - and drink. We all must do our part!

Sake Events and Announcements

First Ginjo-shu Kyokai "Shin-shu Matsuri" Event
In the afternoon and evening of Thursday, May 10, the Ginjo-shu Kyoukai, those purveyors of good sake events, will hold their first ever Shin-shu Matsuri, or "New Sake Festival." It is, in short, a tasting that is a slightly toned down version of their usual fall fiesta tasting events.

The event will be held from 14:30 to 16:30, and again from 18:00 to 20:00 (the two sessions will be identical) at the Diamond Hall room on the 12th floor of the Tokyo Kotsuu Kaikan, just out side of JR Yurakucho Station. Obviously, the event will feature the new, young sake of the 80-odd member breweries. This is a great opportunity to see what the soon-to-end sake brewing season has yielded.

The cost is a mere 2000 yen when paid for in advance, 2500 yen day of show. Note, though, that unlike their autumn event, guests will not receive a bottle of sake when leaving. This is to keep costs down and hopefully interest high, and the very accessible location should help that as well.

Those interested in attending can send your name, address, and telephone number to (in Japanese if possible, but they will likely figure it out), or fax it to 03-3378-1232. The will then send you an invitation with a payment slip for use at a local post office. Or you can just bite the bullet, pay 500 yen more, and drop in at the event. As a new direction in events for the Ginjo-shu Kyokai, this one will certainly be worth a visit.

Sake Seminar at Takara
Saturday, May 26, 2007

On the evening of Saturday, May 26, I will hold a seminar on sake production at Takara in Yurakucho. Those interested can register by sending me an email from my site (see below). The cost will be 7000 yen for the lecture, dinner and six sake. The evening will run from 6 pm until 9 pm. 

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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