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Traditional Japanese culture and cuisine is based on seasonality. In the springtime, people celebrate new beginnings, blossom festivals, and eat takenoko (bamboo shoots), fresh clams, and sakura mochi (a rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a cherry leaf...so popular Starbucks in Japan even makes a sakura latte). For sake connoisseurs, this is also the time of namazake. Sake is typically pasteurized twice, once before storage, and once in bottle, typically after a resting period of a few months. If either one of those pasteurizations is omitted, the sake may be called nama (nama-zume if it is pastuerized before storage, and nama-chozo if it is done post-maturation). If both have been ommited, then this sake is pure namazake. Most producers will not make a distinction on their labelling, so it may be challenging to know exactly which kind is in the bottle. Namazake is fresh and lively, and offers a different experience to the subtler and more nuanced flavors typically associated with sake.
There is a risk though. Nama sake is fairly unstable, as there is still presence of live yeast and enzymes which haven't been killed off by the heating process. These sake should be refrigerated at all times to avoid the risk of spoilage, and should be consumed quite quickly.
Along with these namazake, we're including some of our favorite sake for springtime drinking. Clean and crisp with a lot of complexity, these will pair with your favorite new arrivals at the farmers market or local fishmonger. We hope you enjoy these sake as much as we do. Oskar Kostecki
Fukucho is made at Imada Shuzo, in the town of Akitsu in Hiroshima Prefecture, on the shores of Japan's Inland Sea, a body of water separating the islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Notably, Imada Shuzo is run by a woman, Miho Imada, who holds the title of both Brewery President and Toji Master, positions she inherited after over a decade of training in the family business. In the years since, she's put her own mark on the brewery, most notably with the Forgotten Fortune bottling. Imada-san revived an heirloom variety of Hiroshima rice called Hattanso, previously only conserved in seed banks, and replanted it for the first time in over a century. After years of experimentation, she's dialed in the exact brewing specifications and crafts this wonderfully clean, vibrant sake with a undercurrent of salinity and umami. The nose is delicate with notes of melon, cucumber peel and steamed rice, and the palate shows great acidity and crisp dry finish. Hiroshima is famous for its oysters, and this sake is a perfect pairing. Delicious with all types of shellfish and seafood, this sake also pairs wonderfully with salads and other light vegetarian fare. Oskar Kostecki
Nanbu Bijin in Iwate prefecture has been brewing premium sake for over a hundred years. The Tokubetsu Junmai is their stalwart, a sake to be enjoyed at any time; easy drinking and unfussy, with nice texture and a clean finish. The nama version is super fun, adding vibrancy and freshness. The nose offers notes of green apple, melon, grass, and blossom. The palate is a touch more savory and shows some steamed rice and toast flavors, as well as more tropical fruit when it warms up, think pineapple and papaya. A little brash when first opened, this sake integrates wonderfully after 15-30 minutes of air. A great entry level nama! Oskar Kostecki
Arabashiri means“first run” and is the quintessential Spring sake. It is only around for a short while each year and is the bottling of the free run juice before it has been pressed in the vat, and consequently has bright flavors, high acidity and a pleasant yeasty quality. It is packed with vivid flavor and plenty of verve and pairs well with various foods. The 2018 bottling from Masumi is brighter and more elegant than previous years, with notes of lemon, tangerine, apple, pear, and fresh cut grass. We're super excited to finally have this back. Don't miss out before it sells out. Oskar Kostecki
Mutemuka Shuzo is located in the mountains of Kochi Prefecture on the southern shore of Shikoku Island, close to the source of Shimanto-gawa, known as Japan's "purest" river on account of its remote location and lack of dams or other obstacles. Established in 1893, Mutemuka has been an early pioneer of organic rice farming, and for the past few generations has been crafting bold expressions of sake. This junmai nama genshu (unpasteurized and undiluted) is a knockout. Laden with bold umami flavors, this explodes on the palate with notes of grass, hazelnut, cocoa nibs, parsnip, dried apricot, raw honey, citrus peel, and a slightly lactic quality. Due to the slightly higher alcohol (18%) is has a very rich mouthfeel and feels vibrant on the palate. Pair with roasted meats and vegetables (it was particularly good with pork), mushroom risotto, hearty udon, and other savory, umami-laden dishes. Oskar Kostecki
Uehara Shuzo is located in Shiga Prefecture, on the shores of Japan's biggest lake, Lake Biwa. The brewery is very traditional, using a wooden press and old wooden vats for fermentation, which is mostly done without the use of cultivated yeasts. Uehara works extensively with local farmers who are committed to sustainable rice-farming practices. This particular bottling is an usunigori (thin nigori), not as viscous and fleshy as most nigori, just lightly cloudy with a beautiful silvery tone and a rich, soft mouthfeel. This is a nama genshu, or unpasteurized and undiluted sake, so be prepared for some bold flavors. Honeydew, cucumber peel, white peach, spring onion, grass, and a creamy, leesy quality are all present here, making this a complex example of a singular style. High acidity keeps this sake from becoming too overbearing and leads to a clean and crisp finish. Oskar Kostecki
Omachi is quickly becoming my favorite sake rice. It is the oldest known pure (i.e. non cross-bred) variety, and when brewed to its full potential is wonderfully balanced. Integrating earthy and herbal tones with a subdued fruit profile; less flashy and effusive than Yamada Nishiki, but with depth and complexity. This beautiful namazake from Rihaku Shuzo in Shimane Prefecture is one of the most elegant namas I've had, with notes of white blossoms, pear, white peach, and fresh cut grass on the nose. For "Origin of Purity" they are using flower yeasts, isolated from Japan's natural flora by the crazy cats at Tokyo Agricultural University and used in sake production since the late '90s. Flower yeasts add a heightened aromatic quality, which coupled with the savory undertones of the Omachi rice makes this a very complex sake. The palate opens with more earthy tones of radish and steamed rice, along with citrus and citrus rind, and a slight lactic quality I associate with nama. It's vibrant but elegant, with notes of raw cacao and hazelnut as it warms up in the glass. Very limited in quantity, this is a must-try on my list. Oskar Kostecki
Honjozo is sake made with a small amount of brewers alcohol added during the final stages of the fermentation process. The added alcohol extracts more flavor from the mash, yielding a more effusive character. Midorikawa is a distinctive brewery in Niigata Prefecture, deviating from the classic light-bodied and elegant sake typical of the region. Everything they produce spends at least a year resting before it's released, leading to a richer, more umami-driven beverage. Notes of apple, pear skin, and melon interweave with a delicate nuttiness and aroma of dried leaves and flowers. A beautiful honjozo! Oskar Kostecki
Hakkaisan produces sake in Niigata Prefecture, and they are a benchmark for the clean and elegant style of the region. Niigata is known as snow country, and in this particular case Hakkaisan is using the tradition and natural bounty of Niigata to create a unique and interesting new addition to their line-up. A yukimoro is a structure filled with snow all year around that allows for the storage of perishable goods without using electricity. Hakkaisan have loaded theirs with hundreds of tons of snow and age their wonderful junmai ginjo for an additional three years. The massive amounts of snow keep the yukimoro at a constant temperature of three degrees Celcius. Notes of orange, orange blossom, pear, white flowers and lychee on the nose, the palate is broad and rich but direct, with great acidity. Long and complex finish. Unlike most aged sake I have tried, this is very fresh and balanced, without the typical notes of umami or oxidation that usually develop. A few other producers in Niigata are experimenting with snow aging, and we are excited to see where this method goes in the future. Oskar Kostecki