I got an opportunity to enjoy a saké tasting with Midori Roth of Winebow. She was in town promoting the brands to various restaurants and wine shops, and a meeting was arranged so that I could sample the products. The tasting took place in the lobby of the Sheraton in downtown Memphis, right across the street from a major agricultural convention, and the hotel restaurant kindly loaned us a pair of wine glasses while we sat on the couch and discussed saké.
All of the bottles shown here come from the Akita Prefecture on the northwest coast of Honshu, the large main island of Japan. In the tasting notes, I've included the milling percentages, which refer to how much of the rice grain is removed through polishing before the brewing process starts. Naturally the more that's abraded away, the more delicate and expensive the saké. 65% milling means that 35% of the grain was removed.
A note about temperature: there are nine levels of serving saké, from piping hot to snow cold. Roth mentioned a gastropub in Japan that employed specialists who would make sure the temperature of the saké was perfect--not just for the particular bottle, but who would also remember a specific customer's preferences. All of these were tried slightly chilled and in wine glasses.
Hideyoshi Namacho Honjozo
Suzuki Shuzoten founded in 1689
$12, 15% abv.
Despite the modern packaging this is a truly traditional saké. Nineteen generations of the Suzuki family have been brewing in Akita since the 17th century. Bright and crisp with excellent lactic acid, and a great bargain. I'd strongly recommend this as an introductory saké if you're curious about it or have been turned off by bad experiences with cheap saké in the past.
Dewatsuru Kimoto Junmai
Akita Seishu founded in 1865
$30, 14% abv.
This selection was the one that would most appeal to someone who is fond of French white wines. I found it to have a great Old World profile that would pair well with a lot of classic cheeses. Wild and earthy with notes of dried mushrooms. Firm acidity with a thicker body that slightly clings to the glass.
Hinomaru Jozo founded in 1689
$36, 14% abv.
Like with the Suzuki, this kura was also founded in 1689 but that's purely a coincidence. This brewery only produces higher end and lower end saké, with nothing in the middle. The latter products are just the everyday futsū-shu for locals, the equivalent of a table wine. It's said that if a brewery's futsū-shu is good, then the premium bottles will be good as well. Incredibly smooth and delicate, and a delight to sip.
Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo
Tenju Shuzo founded in 1874
$63, 15% abv.
A true surprise. This saké showed gentle notes of licorice and jasmine, like a very mild memory of pastis. Rich and smooth with a very refined body, I found myself craving raw shellfish... Oysters and clams would be amazing with this bottle, and if you ever get a chance to try a well-produced, premium saké like this, it will forever change your mind. Highly recommended.
Note: These bottles were provided as samples for review.