A big thank you to Sarika for inviting me to be a part of her ‘Women in Sake Project.’
You can check out the project and other interviews here.
Sake Bar Yoramu, Kyoto
I often get asked for recommendations from people when they are planning a visit to Japan. “Where should we go to drink good sake?” is the most common question. For starters, just by going to Japan, I tell them they are well and truly on the right track – the birthplace of Nihonshu is certainly going to offer a far greater and varied selection of the stuff than anywhere outside of Japan.
Whilst good, even great, sake is readily available almost everywhere in Japan, just like most return travellers to the land of Nihonshu, I have a handful of favourite places. Of course, I am always on the lookout for the next place to add to that list each time I return. Let’s not forget, there are 47 prefectures, and even after traveling to Japan 11 times, I’ve hardly scratched the surface.
I can only offer recommendations based upon my own experiences and of course, my preferred taste. What might appeal to one person, may not appeal to the next person – a theory also held, when it comes to sake, by the owner of the bar I am about to talk about, and ultimately, recommend.
One of my favourite bars, (if not the favourite thus far), in Japan, is located in one of my favourite cities, (if not the favourite thus far), in the world – Kyoto. The bar is called Yoramu, Japanese phonetics for the name of Israeli born owner, Yoram Ofer.
I first visited Yoramu in mid 2012. From memory, I think I found out about it through an online guide and then conducted a little of my own research on the venue and was convinced it was a must visit whilst in Kyoto that year. I had been traveling to Japan since 2003, visiting Kyoto each time, and of course consuming my fair share of sake, but until researching for that particular visit, had not heard about Yoramu.
It took me a little while to find the place, but when I did, it did not disappoint. I’d drank a fair bit of sake in my time, I had even created sake lists for restaurants, but had never drank anything like what was served to me that evening. Back in 2012, the selection of sake in Australia was certainly not as diverse as it is today, the industry has grown so much in the last 7 years – however, even now, with the wonderful variety of sake coming into Australia, you could still not have the same sake experience that Yoramu offers.
Around that time, I had been drinking a fair bit of red wine in Australia, I guess you could say it had become my go-to drink. So when asked by Yoram what my flavour preferences were, (be prepared for that question), we discussed what type of wine I enjoyed and he created a flight of three different Nihonshu based on my response. It was the first time I had ever seen such rich colours in sake and definitely the first time I had ever tried a sake that actually tasted more like a sherry. Needless to say, that night my mind, and palate, were blown away by the most interesting and flavourful sake I had ever had.
I returned to Yoramu two nights later for more! I was hooked on what this bar had to offer and hungry to learn more about the different incarnations of sake. I now make sure to visit Yoramu each time I visit Kyoto, usually more than once per trip too. With each visit comes a new and unique sake experience, and of course, a wealth of sake knowledge and passion from Yoram himself.
Yoram Ofer was born in Jerusalem, Israel, in 1962. At the end of his military service, he travelled to Japan in 1984 and has been based there ever since. He opened Yoramu at the end of 2000 and over the years, it has become more of a sake institution than just a sake bar – and by his loyal customers, is certainly treated as such, with patrons having the upmost respect for Yoram’s wisdom and his willingness to experiment with ageing sake at uncontrolled temperatures to create such a unique experience with a beverage that is, more often than not, drank quite young. Everything Yoram serves is Junmai and a lot of the sake he ages is unpasteurised. Yoram says his main goal is to offer his patrons a wide taste range, and he certainly does that. It is a rare opportunity to be able to try the same sake from two different ‘vintages’, sometimes over 20 years apart – but Yoram makes this possible and just that alone is worth a visit for any sake lover or even just the ‘sake-curious’. He also has excellent and eclectic taste in music.
Despite being a self-confessed ‘ishiatama’, (Japanese expression for a thick headed person/someone set in their ways), Yoram is humble, eccentric, and evidently passionate about Nihonshu. Sometimes a little misunderstood, Yoram does things a little differently, but I for one am thankful that he does. He does not push his own tastes onto others, nor does he tell you not to drink other styles and incarnations of sake offered at other venues – what he does, is provide a sake tasting experience that nobody else is offering. With every visit I gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for Yoram and the sake he offers.
Yoram provides a one-man operated space and a sake experience to be grateful for and mindful of, his bar is small, seating only around 8-9 people. It’s a quiet place, somewhat esoteric, and certainly a place where sake is the star – there is some food available but Yoramu is ultimately a place to drink and enjoy sake! Kanpai to that!
Sake Bar Yoramu is located on Nijo-dori (east of Karasuma) in Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. Opening hours: Wed-Sat 6pm-midnight.
In March, 2019, I had the pleasure of visiting Kidoizumi Shuzo in Chiba during John Gauntner’s SPC2.
From the moment we were greeted by the ever so kind and most accommodating Mr. Justin Potts, to our final group photo under the biggest sugidama, (cedar ball), I have ever seen – this brewery visit, the final one of the course, exceeded my expectations in every way.
Kidoizumi have been brewing Sake in the Chiba region since 1879, however, it was in 1956, under the brewery’s 3rd generation ownership, that they decided they’d start to change things up a little, and they have continued the tradition of ‘natural’ brewing ever since. Kidoizumi insist on brewing sake that is completely free from additives, pesticides, chemical fertilisers.
They are the only brewery in Japan using the unique brewing method called ‘Ko-on Yamahai’ or ‘Hot-Yamahai’, a technique they developed at Kidoizumi, where large amounts of ‘house’ cultivated lactic bacteria are added to the moto, (fermentation starter), which is kept at the high temperature of 55 degrees celsius. At first thought an impossible method by other professionals in the industry, Kidoizumi proved them wrong and have been using this method with great success for around 50 years. In fact, everything Kidoizumi make, in terms of Sake, is Hot-Yamahai!
The brewery itself is incredibly photogenic, as is the Toji, (head brewer) – 5th generation, Hayato Shoji, who radiated joy and passion for his craft as he stood lovingly over his lively fermentation.
Walking into Kidoizumi is a little like stepping back in time, or at least it was how I’d always imagined a Sake brewery to look. Despite seeing a number of them in recent years, none had matched the image I had long ago conjured up, – until Kidoizumi. Of course, that’s not to say the other breweries I have visited have disappointed, far from it, each one is unique and has it’s own character. Kidoizumi though, was definitely an aesthetic delight for me. I fell behind the group several times because I kept stopping to take photos of pretty much everything – I was even enraptured by the maekake, (Japanese aprons), dancing in the breeze as they hung, drying, on a clothesline made from bamboo and rope.
After a tour through the brewery, we headed to a room displaying aged sake dating back to 1974, (my birth year) where we had the opportunity to taste some of Kidoizumi’s delicious sake (unfortunately not the 1974… maybe next time) – better still, our tasting was along side some locally crafted artisan cheese from Haru Fromagerie, (and delicious sake lees crackers made by Justin’s wife) – I was in umami heaven.
Kidoizumi’s sake is layered and complex, full-bodied with a great depth of flavour. Their unique Hot-Yamahai method certainly creates something special in these brews. The three that stood out for me were the AFS Fly 2017, Afruge Ma Cherie 2016 and the Hakugyokuko 2017, which all paired exquisitely with the cheese.
We were also treated to a vegan Kaiseki bento-box lunch from Kurashow to enjoy alongside the wonderful sake. As someone who is not a vegan, I am partial to a piece of salted salmon in my bento, however, I have to say, this was the best bento I have ever had! Every element was so well thought out, incredibly delicious and clearly made with love. A personal note from chef “Pan-chan” on the menu even pointed out the importance of creating dishes that compliment sake. Read more about Kurashow and their naturally fermented food here.
With full bellies and contented hearts, (and most of us taking home a bottle or two of something – for me it was the AFS Fly 2017), we bid Kidoizumi, Justin and Shoji-san farewell and boarded our train back to Tokyo. It was a fitting way to end a wonderful five sake-filled days of John’s course.
Sake: The spirited non-spirit.
The sake revolution is coming! Or at least the beverage that was received with apprehension by many for so long, is now mostly well received by a far greater audience in the West than ever before. It’s with thanks to this growing interest from outside Japan, that the interest from the younger generation of Japanese drinkers is also on the rise. However, with your interest, we could well be on the way to a revolution!
If you enjoy a drink or two with a meal and you’re not yet part of that audience, now is the time to get on board with Sake Matsuri just around the corner. Sake Matsuri is Australia’s first, and largest, sake festival and is back for it’s second year in Melbourne on Saturday 8th June. Presented by the team at Revel Global, Sake Matsuri offers tastings of over 60 different varieties of Japanese sake from several of Australia’s best importers. An exciting addition to the Melbourne event this year will be the attendance of a number of brewers from Japan hosting their own stalls, giving the audience a chance to meet some of the craftspeople behind the production of this unique beverage.
Sake consumption is on the rise globally, which is a wonderful thing and something that could well help save an industry that has been struggling in its homeland for many years. With the Western world’s growing fascination for all things Japanese, the Japan travel craze of recent years, (and the fact that more and more breweries are opening their doors to tourists), has given many people a wonderful introduction to the world of Sake, a far cry from the introduction most Gen-Xers, (myself included), and Baby Boomers had.
Mention sake to a number of people from these demographics and often their immediate response is “oh, you mean that strong stuff that gives you a hangover?”. My heart breaks a little each time I hear this. The unfortunate thing, of course, being that 15-20 years ago, the sake on offer in Australia was a far cry from what is available today. The stuff served to us back then, usually scalding hot (straight out of the microwave) in a small ceramic carafe (known as a tokkuri), drank from little white ceramic cups (o-choko), which made us instinctively ‘shot’ it’s contents, was not premium sake. No doubt it was some of the cheapest table sake, or worse, that was bulked out by copious amounts of cheap brewer’s alcohol and also contained sugar and a variety of other nasty additives. A completely different animal to premium sake, of which there are actually several different grades, (and that awful stuff you remember is not one of them). Sake, the word itself, in Japan is a word that encompasses all alcohol – not just the alcohol we call sake, (which is referred to as Nihonshu in Japan).
It’s often because of a bad first experience with a cheap and nasty sake, resulting in a cheap and nasty hangover, that people have formed their own strong opinions on sake and are reluctant to ever try it again, which of course, works against the industry’s favour. If your first sake experience was similar to what I have described, I implore you to reconsider your take on sake, as a whole new and delightful experience awaits you!
Most people I speak to that are not overly familiar with sake still believe it’s a spirit and very high in alcohol, when in fact, sake is a fermented and brewed beverage made from rice, (however, it’s not a rice wine), with an average abv of 15% – only slightly higher than your average chardonnay. Here are some other facts about premium sake that you may or may not know: sake is gluten free, sulphite free, preservative free, tannin free, and low in acidity and residual sugar. Sounding pretty good eh? It’s because of all of these qualities that sake is actually an incredibly food friendly beverage, dare I say it, in some cases more so than wine. Sake pairs well with a wide variety of cuisine, not only Japanese food, and in fact, due to the savoury umami character of sake, and the presence of amino acids, it pairs perfectly with one of the most non-Japanese foods out there – cheese. I’m yet to find a cheese that I can’t match with sake, or is it the other way around? Either way, if you don’t believe me, try it yourself sometime.
Sake is also a far more aromatic beverage than most people realise. With the rise of Ginjo-style sake, (where the rice is more highly polished before brewing), coming into Australia, more and more people are discovering the joys of drinking sake the same way you would a white wine – chilled, in a wine glass, alongside a meal – enjoying aromas such as pear, melon, green apple, lychee, and stone fruit. Those small ceramic cups still have their place, as does warm sake – in fact, it’s versatility and ability to be delicious at a number of different temperatures only adds to the overall appeal of Japan’s national beverage.
If you’re someone who prefers bubbles, try a sparkling sake – it’s a thing! Not a white wine drinker? No problem. Sake Matsuri has all palates covered – you’ll find everything from clear to cloudy (and even amber-hued), fruity to funky, mellow to meaty, and more. You’ll get the opportunity to try sake at different temperatures and talk to some of the most knowledgable people in the industry here in Australia, not to forget some of the brewers themselves.
Tickets for Melbourne’s Sake Matsuri are available here.
What to try? If you can, everything! (or at least a little something from each importer). Here are a few tips.
For the sake novice: Try starting with a Ginjo or Dai-Ginjo sake. These tend to be more delicate with more fruity aromas and flavours.
For fans of the fizz: Head over and say hello to Andre at Dassai Australia and try a sparkling sake from Dassai’s range. Deja Vu Sake, Sake Shop, Bishu Wine and Super Sake will also have a sparkling on tasting.
For those who like a little acidity: Try the Classic Senkin Muku from Domaine Senkin at the Super Sake stand. With a wine sommelier background, Senkin’s Toji (head brewer) is actually known as the King of acid in the sake world in Japan.
For fans of something sweeter: Whilst most sake has a subtle sweetness, you might wish to try a Kijoshu – a sweeter style of sake, usually quite rich and full bodied. Both Sake Shop and Bishu Wine will have a Kijoshu on offer.
For those who love warm sake: Taka and Rey at Sakenet are big advocates for Kan-zake (warm sake) and will have plenty on offer.
For those who love a red wine with their steak: Try a Yamahai or Kimoto style sake. These tend to be a little more savoury, rice driven and gamier on the palate. Also be sure to visit the brewer’s stand from Kenbishi and take home one of their koshu blends to enjoy with your meat and three veg – or try it with cheese – delicious!
For those keen to try a sake they will find hard to believe is a sake: Say hi to Matt at Black Market Sake and try the Suginishiki Koshu (aged sake) from 2006! Also a little differently delicious is the Kumamoto Genmaishu (brown rice sake).
Sake Matsuri hits Melbourne on Saturday 8th June, 2019
Try up to 90 different Sake all under the one roof and the one ticket price.