Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

September 20, 2009

Sake from Akita Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Akita is lies in the northwestern corner of the main island of Honshu and is a beautiful prefecture of rugged mountains, beech forests and deep lakes. As cold winds blow in from Siberia over the Japan Sea, the severe winters bring heavy snowfall. Tazawako is Japan's deepest lake and Mt Chokai, in the south of the prefecture, has been nicknamed "Dewa Fuji" for its graceful cone. Kakunodate is a historical town with 200-year old samurai houses. In winter, people huddle around the irori, the square open hearth where they enjoy the local dish of kiritanpo, skewers with pounded rice grilled over a charcoal fire and then added to a hotpot stew of vegetables, mushrooms and chicken.

Akita is also a true sake land: it is the second producer of sake in Japan (at 19.2% of the total in 2010) and advertises itself with the slogan "Kingdom of Beautiful Sake." Akita has plenty of good rice, crystal-clear spring water and the cold winters help brewers keep the fermentation under control. But perhaps because of its distance from urban centers, it was only in the Taisho-period, in the 2nd and 3rd decades of the 20th c. that brewing in Akita took off, thanks to modern transport. Now (2015) there are 38 breweries. Breweries here started early on with ginjo production. There is a small but fine group of local toji, the Sannai toji.

The prefecture is also very active. In 1990, it has developed its own strain of yeast, AK-1 (also known as Association Yeast No. 15), which produces very fragrant sake but also calls for fermenting at low temperatures for a long time. A large harvest of medals at the National Competition for New Sake the next year was the result. This yeast has greatly contributed to the distinctive style of Akita sake, called "Akita-ryu," Akita's school of brewing.

Akita Prefecture is also one of only two prefectures in Japan that have their own Institute for Brewing Technology. And although Akita still grows a lot of Miyama Nishiki, it has also developed its own types of special sake rice such as Gin no Sei. Akita's brewers are actively looking for customers abroad, by sending missions to the U.S. and E.U. via the Akita Sake Promotion and Export Council (ASPEC).

Akita's sake is rich but delicate, with a detailed construction. It is also somewhat on the sweet side, due to the mostly soft quality of the water in the prefecture. Akita people are also known as the greatest sake drinkers in Japan (the prefecture has the highest consumption rate in the country), so 90% of Akita's sake is enjoyed by Akita itself.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Ama no To ("Heaven's Door" - from an old song that reads "Quietly open the door to heaven, and let the sunlight shine upon the green leaves of cedar trees in the holy mountain"; Asamai Shuzo in Yokote City). Founded in 1917 by Kikazaki Soko. Only uses local rice (Miyama Nishiki, Gin no Sei and Kame no O, but no Yamada Nishiki!) and has formed a rice study group with its contract farmers - is established in an important rice growing area in Asamai (Hiraka) just outside Yokote. Has won five consecutive gold medals in the National Sake tasting competition using Akita rice and AK-1 yeast. Brewery visit possible upon advance application (located 15 min. by taxi from Yokote St.).
  • Aramasa ("New Administration" - a name used by the Meiji government; Aramasa Shuzo in Akita City). Founded in 1852 by Sato Uhee. Became famous in the late 1920s and 1930s, at which time it won many awards in tasting competitions. In 1935, the oldest association yeast that is still in use, Association Yeast No. 6, was isolated from a prize-winning sake of Aramasa. The brewery also developed advanced rice polishing and slow fermentation at low temperatures. In this way, it played an important part in the modernization of sake. Uses very soft water from the Ou Mountain range and Akita Sake Komachi as sake rice.
  • Dewatsuru ("Crane of Dewa"; Dewatsuru Syuzo Corporation (Akita Seishu) in Daisen City). Located on the Senboku Plain. Founded in 1865 by the Ito family as Yamato Brewery with as brand name "Matsu no Tomo." In 1913, the brewery moved to its present location in Nangai village and its name was changed to Dewatsuru Brewery in 1955. The name goes back to the words of a former brew master who said: "May this sake that I brew with all my spirit be like a crane in its caliber and mellowness." Also brews sake with organically grown rice "Tamaki." Sannai toji.  
  • Hideyoshi ("Hideyoshi" is the name of the famous 16th c. unifier of Japan and also a play on the words "excellent and good"; General Partnership Company Suzukisyuzo in Daisen City). Founded in 1689 by a brewer who moved here from Ise. The sake was enjoyed by the local feudal clan, the Satake, who gave it the name "Hideyoshi" after the brewery won a tasting competition in the fief in 1849. All hand brewed, more than 60% is premium sake. Was one of the earliest breweries to start marketing ginjo just after WWII. Brewery visit possible on advance application. There are also small museum with historical items (incl. ancient documents such as precious brewing diaries) and a shop.  (10 min by taxi from Kakunodate St. on the Akita Shinkansen line, or 10 min walk from Ugonagano St on the JR Tazawako Line).
  • Hiraizumi ("Flying Good Spring"; Hiraizumi Honpu in Kaho City). In contrast to the relative youth of most breweries in Akita, Hiraizumi's history goes back to the 15th c. (1487 to be exact), making it the 3rd longest history of any brewery in Japan. The brewery was set up by a shipping company from southern Osaka, from an area called "Izumi," and it combined its original wholesaler's name of "Izumiya" with the name of its Akita location, Hirasawa ("Hirasawa Izumi no Sake" which became "Hiraizumi"). Originally, sake brewing was just a side business, but in the early Meiji period, it became the main occupation. Different from other Akita sake is the fact that Hiraizumi brews with very hard water, resulting in a dense sake high in acidity. Makes all its sake with the yamahai method, which in addition creates sake with a robust body. The current buildings date from 1883.
  • Kariho ("Cut Rice Stalks"; Kariho Syuzo Corporation (Akita Seishu) in Daisen City). Formed in 1913 as a sister company to Dewatsuru. The name of the brewery cites a famous poem by Emperor Tenchi, part of "One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets:" "Because of the coarseness of the rush mat in this temporary hut in the rice paddy in autumn, my cuffs are becoming wet by the dew on the cut rice stalks." Uses relatively hard water which results in a dry sake with "body." Uses only traditional fune presses, no yabuta type hydraulic ones. Makes sake with the yamahai method. Has won many awards in tasting competitions over the years. 
  • Mansaku no Hana ("Flower of Mansaku", the first tree to bloom in spring; Hinomaru Shuzo in Yokote City). Established in 1689 in Masudamachi, Yokote. The Hinomaru Brewery takes its name from the family crest of the ruling Satake clan: a folding fan with a hinomaru (sun) design. Uses subsoil water from Mt Kurikoma from its five wells. One of the smallest breweries in Akita. Most of the sake is aged in the bottle. 90% of its sake is premium sake. Brews with the kimoto-method and makes only ginjo class sake. Brewery tours are not possible, but visitors are welcome to see the old warehouse (the Uchi Gura, a magnificent inner hall decorated with lacquered panels and woodwork) and shop during office hours. Call in advance to be sure the company is open.  
  • Ryozeki ("Both Ozeki," to indicate that this sake is strong both in the East and in the West of Japan; Ryouzeki Syouzo Corporation in Yuzawa City). Founded in 1874 by Ito Niemon. Won the top award in the first national sake tasting competition in 1907, the first company "east of Kyoto" to achieve this. Since then many more awards of honor have been won, elevating the appreciation for Akita sake in general. The company also was a pioneer in the use of low temperature, slow fermentation methods and is still a leader in high-quality sake. Does not use outside toji, but trains its own staff to become toji. Welcomes visitors to its historical kura (incl. tasting and a shop), but reservations are necessary at least three days in advance. (20 min. on foot from JR Yuzawa St.)
  • Taiheizan ("Taiheizan" is the name of a sacred mountain east of Akita City; Kodama Jozo Corporation in Katagami City). Started as a manufacturer of miso in 1879. Sake brewing began in 1913 and in 1934 the company received top honors in the national sake tasting competition. That year it also became the first company to sell chilled sake. Uses abundant quantities of clean well water and superior quality rice. Known for its use of the traditional kimoto-method ("Akita School Kimoto"). Three times a day there is tour of its Meiji-period brewing facilities, incl. those for miso and soy sauce. Call in advance to be sure the company is open. 
  • Takashimizu ("Pure water from on High" - a place on a hill where the Japanese court many centuries ago established a local seat of government; Akita Shurui Seizo in Akita City). Founded through the merger of 12 small breweries just after WWII. A brewing powerhouse that has one of the highest production volumes in north-eastern Japan. Understandably, much of that is ordinary "table sake," but the brand also has a few good premium sakes. It takes its water from a famous well that was used by the reigning feudal clan. Brewery visit possible upon advance application. 
  • Tenju ("Heavenly Long Life"; Tenju Shuzo in Yurihonjo City). Founded 140 years ago (1874), this brewery located in Yashima village uses melted snow water from Mt. Chokai. Regards "sake making as rice making" and has set up the Tenju Sake Rice Research Association for studying the organic cultivation of rice. Makes a Junmai Daiginjo with the brand name Chokaisan (made with Miyama Nishiki sake rice). 
  • Yuki no Bousha ("Cabin in the Snow"; Saiya Shuzoten in Yurihonjo City). Founded in 1902 by Saito Yataro and still uses many of its historical buildings, such as the Nobori-kura, a kura that climbs up to the hillside. Brews with water that has been filtered down through Mt Shinzan, at the foot of Mt Chokai. The water is semi-soft. The brewery is shaded by a huge keyaki-tree, providing a stable temperature inside the kura. Only brews in small batches as it believes large tanks lead to a bland taste. The brewery primarily uses indigenous Akita Komachi and Gin No Sei sake rice, but also Yamadanishiki from Hyogo for some daiginjos. In 2001, it became the first sake brewery in Japan to be certified as an organic sake brewer. Uses a unique method called "Sannai Jozo," which is not only a pun on the fact that Yukinobosha employs a toji from the Sannai guild, but which also means that the fermentation with its proprietary yeast is so strong that no mixing with paddles is necessary, no adding of water and no filtering. Brewery visit possible upon advance application. 
Akita Sake Brewers Association (English)
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

September 16, 2009

Sake Files: Whisky from Rikyu's water (Suntory Yamazaki Distillery)

Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery is the oldest whisky plant in Japan. It was set up in 1923 by Torii Shinjiro, the founder of Suntory which until then had been only manufacturing the extremely sweet Akadama port wine. While Akadama for obvious reasons never has won any hearts outside of Japan, Suntory's malt whisky has been another story - it has gathered many international prizes.

[The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery]

Mr Torii selected a great place for his distillery: a bamboo grove at the foot of Mt Tennozan, in green Yamazaki between Osaka and Kyoto. It is an area where three rivers, the Katsura, Uji and Kizu rivers, merge, creating mists and fog conducive to good whisky (it keeps the wooden casks used for aging wet so that they don't loose moisture). On top of that, it has excellent water that wells up from undergound - so good and pure that famous Tea Master Sen Rikyu built his Taian teahouse in this area. And, last but not least, the location is also conveniently close to the large population centers of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

Whisky is made by first germinating barley, a process which is called malting. The malt is dried in kilns with a little peat. Next, it is ground and put into a mashtun with warm water (the flavor and quality of the water is very important here!). The enzymes which are the result of the malting change the starch into sugar. When the saccharification is finished, the mash is filtered to obtain a clear wort. That is next transferred to wooden vats called washbacks for the fermentation process. Yeast is added to that purpose. The wooden washbacks are more difficult to operate (temperature control) than stainless steel vats, but they give the whisky a richer flavor.

[Array of pot stills]

Next, direct-fired pot stills are used to distill the fermented liquid and obtain a higher alcohol percentage. Distillation is conducted twice. The right timing of this proces by the stillman, the artisan in charge of distillation, is central to obtaining a well-balanced flavor.

The distillery operates many different stills ("straight-head stills, bulge stills and lantern-head stills"), crouching in a huge hall like so many primeval monsters, to get various types of whisky for blending. The top blended whisky by Suntory is Hibiki.


The final stage of whisky production is the all-important aging in oak casks. The oak imparts color and flavor to the whisky. Aging takes place in a large storehouse where a huge variety of oak casks has been lined up, with such interesting names as "hogsheads," "puncheons" and "sherry butts," besides normal barrels.

The Yamazaki Distillery also became the location where Japan's first single malt whisky was distilled, Yamazaki 12, which came to market in 1984. Today Suntory offers single malts of 10, 12, 18 and 25 years old.

[Oak casks for aging the whisky]

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery is open to the public. From 10:00 to 15:00 guided tours are held which pass through the factory (the three stages of malting/mashing/fermentation, the hall with the huge pot stills, and the large storehouse with the casks for aging), after which a tasting is offered. The whole proces takes about one hour. Afterwards visitors can freely explore the Yamazaki Whisky Museum and the Distillery Shop. The tasting consists of Yamazaki Single Malt which has a clear and crisp flavor plus the more smoky Hakushu which is made at the foot of Mt Komagatake in Yamanashi Prefecture.
The guided tour must be booked in advance by calling (0)75-962-1423. The tour is in Japanese, but English audio guides are available. There is also an English pamphlet. The tour and tasting are free. The distillery is only a 10 min walk from Yamazaki Station on the JR line between Osaka and Kyoto (or Oyamazaki Station on the Hankyu Line).