Issé, which is an important player in the import of quality sake in Paris, organized recently a high-end sake tasting in the 6th arrondissement. For the anecdote, Izakaya Issé is located on rue de Richelieu, next door to the excellent Juvéniles wine bar managed by Tim Johnston. To make the things even more thrilling, the event which went by the name of Les Becs Fins du Sake took place in the town house (hôtel particulier) of Gérard Depardieu in the 6th arrondisement. Toshiro Kuroda, the founder of Issé, was the maître de cérémonie of this sake weekend and he would present to the public several facets of this sake culture. Part of the event was about tasting sake and another interest of the organizers was to highlight the pairing capabilities of sake with different foods and dishes, so several chefs working in prestigious restaurants took part, among them Eric Briffard who works at Le V (The Five), the restaurant of the Four Seasons (George V). Several other chef were invited, like Christophe Pelé (la Bigarade) and Jean-Christophe Rizet (la Truffière).
If Japanese whiskies seem to have gotten a new fame in France (they're ubiquitous in Paris, almost every wine & spirits shop carries a few of them), sake has still way to go before the French feel at ease with them, even if the Ozeki one-cup sake can be found here and there. Speaking of bottling size, another challenge for the French or the European consumer would be to accept the original 1,8-liter bottle of sake, which is in Japan as common as our 75-centiliter bottle for our wines.
The whole event had an upscale touch, you could understand that getting initiate in the world of sake in France is still reserved to some sort of elite, the same way wine tastings in Moscow or Shanghai are the new trendy thing which carry an imagery of exclusiveness and luxury.
Credit for the picture on the left : Issé Paris
An interesting thing to note is that in France many people mistake sake for the distilled alcohol that is served as apéritif in the basic Chinese restaurants. That's why people often think sake is strong, they often never tried the gentle, onctuous nihonshu. On the other hand, in Japan, sake means also alcoholic beverage at large, that is as well the "regular" sake as the spitits of the type of shochu. The word really describing what we call sake is nihonshu, which sort of means "Japanese fermented beverage". Actually, in Japan people use today both terms, sake and nihonshu to describe what you and me call sake. This is all complicated nuances, but once these new difficulties are overcome we can begin to look at the drinks more closely.
I arrived relatively that day and straight from my job; Mr Toshiro Kuroda was commenting a tasting of several Japanese bottles, mostly sake apart from one or two shochu, in front of an audience of maybe 50 people. I walked into the room just in time to taste the last bottle, a pink-labelled shochu sporting 25 ° in alcohol which had an exquisite mouthfeel with rose-petals aromas. Mr Kuroda is quite an original character, he speaks an excellent French with a mastered pronunciation that few Japanese natives attain, he was speaking all the while holding his dog in his arms, and it seems from my research on the web that he does that routinely even in public appearances. From what I read he's been living in France for 40 years, so he probably went around many French mysteries that puzzle the Japanese visitor and even the long-run expat.
The fact that Daishichi is located in the Fukushima prefecture may be a handicap these days, but the brewery has taken the measures to secure its sourcing of rice and water.
But this was a wishful thinking from my part, and I'd take a few notes of my experience that day too. Two days were devoted to the general public (saturday & sunday) with a 30 € fee to take part, and the third day (monday) was for the professionals, this is when I came.
__ Kenbishi Tokusen Kuromatsu. Honjozo. Rice variety : Yamada nishiki, Aiyama. Intensity in the mouth, long mouth. This sake has begun being imported in France by Issé in april 2012. They sell it in two bottling volumes, 1,8 liter & 180 ml. After tasting this sake at room temperature, Mr Shirakasi heats a small pot for the higher-temperature serving. On the nose, aromas are transformed (can't read my notes about them), and in the mouth the sake feels more powerful.
__ Kenbishi Mizuho Kuromatsu. Junmai. Rice variety : Yamada nishiki, Aiyama. On the nose, this sake is saline. Kenbishi sake is really magic, and I won't spit anything of this. The mouth is simply splendid. Is this the water quality, I don't know but there's a minerality feel, it's neat and clear and the sake stands out.
__ Dashichi Minowamon. Kimoto Junmai Dai Ginjo. I'm not working for Issé but I linked to their page because the text (in French) is quite informative. In the mouth, this sake is ample and refined. The kimoto method is, again, a traditional and work-intensive way of having the fermentation develop by itself instead of being accelerated by additives. It needs usually several workers turning the mix in vats with long sticks.
__ Daishichi Junmai Shizeunshu 1992. The nose is straight and expressive. Salinity and minerality. In the mouth, the sake is powerful but not outwardly expressive. I speak with a young Japanese sommelier at the stand who is fluent in French, he says that with the Kimoto method, the sake stands better time and copes with oxidation. That again sounds similar to what we're learning about wine made on a non-interventionist way without SO2 during the vinification. Daishichi, which is not a small brewery, has always been making sake along the kimoto method. Daishichi began to export one of its sakes 4 years ago through JFC, and now Issé imports 4 types.
__ Daishichi Kimoto Kijoshu ("noble-fermentation sake"). More sugar here because the way this sake is made, the yeasts have trouble finishing the job. More concentrated in the mouth, very nice sake, splendid.
__ Daishichi Kimoto Umeshu. Typical Umeshu nose (this plum-like Japanese fruit you can't eat raw and from which alcoholic beverages are made). Super fresh feel, a real candy with honey feel and an exceptional acidity which stands out. Silky and fresh at the same time, the freshness being what surprises the most.
The Daishichi brewery's website
__ Sohomare Kimoto Tokubetsu Junmai. Mr Kono says that this brewery is operating since 1872. They reinstated the Kimoto method 15 years ago. This sake has iodine aromas on the nose. Asked if Kimoto is well understood by the Japanese consumers, he says that 5 % of the public understand the value of using the kimoto method (without addig lactic acid to azccelerate the fermentation process), and the overall volume of the sake made along this practice in Japan is about 7 %.
__ Sohomare Kimoto Junmai Ginjo. Issé began to import their sakes a year ago. The nose here is more interesting and exciting. Nice mouth, mahes salivate.
__ Sohomare Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo. The mouth here is super cristalline and mineral-like. Very elegant sake, onctuous like silk.
__ Sudohonke Satono Homare Kurogin. Junmai Ginjo. Rice variety : Yamadan ishiki. The nose is hard to define in words. The mouth is very aromatic, an avalanche of aromas. Very "English candy". Asked how all this fireworks of aromas are obtained, he answers rice, water and technolgy.
__ Sudohonke Yukinomai. Rice variety : Yamada nishiki. Translucent blue bottle. The brewery has its sake imported by Issé for 2 or 3 years. Very interessant in the mouth, quite a good length.
__ Sudohonke Kakunko, Junmai Daiginjo. Here the aromas are quite incredible, I'd a hard time putting names on them, maybe mokka, mushrooms, lemon peel... He says the rice yeasts, the mold and the fermentation temperature play all a role. He says this pairs well with lamb steak and cheese. Somewhat extravagant, aromaticly, for me.
__ Sudohonke Satono Homare Cho Amakuchi. Very nice sake, very sweet but also very fresh with a delicate texture and good length. Pairs well with smoked ham and chocolate, Sudo-san says.
__ Harada brewery, Junmai Ginjo Hanakobozukuri. The yeast was designed at the university of Tokyo (agriculture) and was found while studying flowers. Served tepid (room) temperature.
__ Harada brewery, Daiginjo Abelia. Same yeasts used. Rice : Yamada Nishiki. Seved at cool temperature. Independently from the serving temperature, this sake is very fresh in the mouth and on the palate. Nice one.
__ Hirase brewery, Kusudama, Tezukuri Junmai. Temperature : tepid/room. Delicate and saline feel in the mouth. Good one.
__ Hirase brewery, Kusumada, Tekuzuri Junmai (not clear what's the difference with the former, but the label is different). None : very aromatic. Intensity in the mouth with white pepper notes. Very good indeed. Good length too. This is the one on the pic above.
__ Kawajiri brewery, Honjozo Jukusei Koshu. Long-keep sake, I'm told. Vintage 2004. It stayed 8 years in a vat with its original 20 ° of alcohol, and was diluted to its present 15 ° before the filtration & bottling. Nose : refined and intense. Mouth : refined and complex, intense too, nice length. This costs 50/60 € for a 1,8-liter bottle.
__ Kawajiri brewery, Junmai, Jukusei Koshu. 200ml bottle. Poured at tepid/romm temperature. Very interesting aroma. Almopst caramel. The person tells me that yesterday the chef of Chateaubriand in Paris organized a dinner and selected this sake for its spanich dessert, a meringue with cream. Very classy sake.
I then tasted a few sake from the Iinuma Honke brewery (no picture), which is located in the town of Shisui in the Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo. It's around since the 17th century, in an area with lots of water. The name of the brewery means "sake well".
__ Iinuma Honke Kinoene Junmai Ginjo.Rice : Gohyaku Mangoku. Their sake is exported since two years, but not yet by Issé, from what I understand. Very fresh nose, with almost incense aromas. Very onctuous, lots of pleasure to drink. Silky feel.
__ Iinuma Honke Kinoene Daiginjo 3 years. Rice : Yamada Nishiki.At the same time powerful and light, aerial. It's imported.
__ Iinuma Honke Kinoene Kyuko. 15 years. Thin 300ml square bottle, unusual for a sake. The nose is very concentrated and exciting. Redish/amber color. It was aged in bottle from what I'm told, not in wood (the color might hint wood). Very chiseled sake.
__ Nanbu Bijin Junmai Daiginjo. Very saline feel, almost like sea water, extraordinary feel.
__ Nanbu Bijin Umeshu. Prune liquor, 10/11 ° in alcohol. Rice : Toyo Nishiki, Ginotome. Pink color. Aromas of faded rose, very nice presence. Nice cocoa aroma in the mouth.
__ Nanbu Bijin All Koji. Long-élevage sake. 8 years. Rice : Toyo Nishiki, Ginotome. Here the whole rice was sprinkled with the koji mold (Aspergillus Orysae), not 20/30 % like usual. It has 3 more times glucose and amino-acids compared to regular sakes. More sugary in its feel, more concentrated. Less pleasant for me.
__ Sakura. This first cocktail is made with a Kenbishi sake base with a bit of Beefeater gin, a London dry gin which is quite traditional, to that you add some Dolin Rouge (it's made in Chambery in the French Alps) which is a red Vermouth which is very sweet compared to other Vermouths. Then he adds some Luxardo which is a cherry liquor aged in casks for 3 years, and at the end he puts a bit of Angostura.
This cocktail, the bartender says, is very akin in style to the Martinez cocktail which goes well as apéritif and also at the end of dinner. I began with this cocktail and liked its peppery side with the bitterness, exciting drink.
__ Bloody Yoshi. This second sake-based cocktail starts with a tomato-infused sake (made by the Sakura Muromashi brewery in the Okayama prefecture) coupled with the Norgegian vodka Christiana which is very pure, sweet and aromatic. To break a bit the sake, they use Yusu juice (a Japanese ingredient commonly found in small bottles), plus a bit of Wasabi, a bit of soya sauce which brings a saline touch, some sesame and coriander, and you mix the whole thing and serve.
This Bloody Yoshi, like the Bloody Mary is good very early in the morning when you've been out sleepless in the big city, this will wake you up again. This Bloody Yoshi can indeed wake up the deads ! It's saline, there's the tomato behind, the pepper (this is the wasabi maybe ?), this cocktail is dynamite !
The ingrediends are pictured on the left. Chef Eric Briffard seemed also impressed by this Bloody Yoshi (pic on right)...
There are alas a few breweries that I didn't taste in this event by lack of time : Hinomaru (Akita Prefecture), Tomizawa (Fukushima prefecture - the brewery was destroyed by the earthquake and they had it rebuilt somwhere else, in Aizu), Yucho (Nara prefecture) and Taikai (Kagoshima prefecture), I arrived at the end of the day and I was still lucky to have tasted the other ones. Thank you to Toshiro Kuroda and Gérard Depardieu for this.
If you have the patience to wait during the short commercial, you can see here a report in French about the event with interviews of sommelier Olivier Poussier and chef Eric Briffard.
A detailed article of Libération about the event.
Blog about the Shizuoka sake (discovered in a comment on my Daishichi story)