Sake is a beverage that I’ve enjoyed since the 1980’s, when Japanese restaurants first began to appear, although it was mystifying to me at the time. I learned that it was brewed using rice and yeast, in ways similar to beer. But it was always served hot and in little cups, and quite often served in those days as a combo called a Sake Bomb. During this ritual, enthusiastically undertaken by my rock band compatriots when our Warner Brother rep would take us to Bisuteki in Cambridge for a night on the town, we would drop the little hot sake cup into a glass of ice cold beer and down it all in one long gulp. I’m not ashamed that I did that quite often (even recently at Hojoko in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood) because it tasted good and delivered the goods. But decades later there are a plethora of sakes of all different styles available in the US, well beyond the Futsushu or table sake that was the only type available then. Of course, in those days, wine was sold as red, white and sometimes Rosè, with no mention of grapes or country of origin. My how times have changed!
Discussions about Sake can go on and on, and certainly there is a lot to learn about this ancient beverage, which historians think dates back to around the year 800, maybe even before then. That certainly predates the Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Washoku Revival began,taking traditional Japanese cuisine and separating it from the post-isolation era foreign foods being introduced to Japan during that time.
Bodaimoto method is a very unique method of making Sake. It is said to have been used by monks at Shoryakuji Temple, a Buddhist temple circa 987, AD, located in the mountains of Bodaisencho, Nara Prefecture, Bodai is the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit word Bodhi meaning the Buddha, the enlightened one. In the Bodaimoto (enlightened?) method, raw rice (some research indicates steamed rice or a combination of both) is soaked in water and covered with cloth, which sits for up to 3 or 4 days. During that time lactic acid bacteria breaks down the starches in the rice, producing what is called Shoyashimizu. This is similar to the way Yoghurt is produced, and that same souring flavor is tasted here, as well as others that the variety of microbes involved can produce. When steamed rice and Koji yeast is added this becomes Shubu or Moto, the mother starter for Sake. Now the fermentation begins. Another yeast, Kobo, will be added and in around 2 weeks, after which the Moromi will be created, from which the sake will be extracted and the spent rice removed. It is unfiltered however, so small rice particles will remain, which is called Nigori sake. This is a rather simplified explanation but suffice to say this was a long and involved process (Monks evidently had a lot of time on their hands; in Europe they created secret recipes for spirits such as Chartruese and Benedictine).
By the 1700’s, the back breaking Kimoto method was introduced, in which the lactic acid was mixed into the rice by men mixing the batch with wooden paddles. In 1909, at the tail end of Meiji era, Yamahai (similar to Kimoto but without all the intensive labor) was discovered by a scientist, and is being done again today. Sokujo, which concentrates on creating the perfect yeast, was discovered around the same time, making these older ways obsolete - thus creating modern sake as we know it. We’ll look at these other methods in future posts. But, as with all things, everything old is new again, and a handful of breweries are producing Sake using these traditional ways today. In 1996, a group of brewers began to collaborate with the Shoryakuji Temple monks to revive this ancient method. All of these sakes are fast becoming favorites of mine, as I enjoy their uniquely rich and very funky flavors, with versatility when it comes to pairing with food, from Japan and beyond.
Junmai nigori bodaimoto usu (unfiltered)
Brewed by Tsuji Honten in Okayama, Japan (Okayama Prefecture)
Rice : Omachi (from Okayama)
Rice Polishing Ratio (Seimaibuai) 65%
Sake Meter Value (- = sweetness, + = dryness) -6
24 fl oz (720ml)
Notes : Very fruity on the nose, with apple and citrus. Appears cloudy with tiny rice particles, less dense than in normal Nigori, in which typically one would find a layer of “snow”(rice sediment) on the bottom of the bottle. It almost appears as if a layer of dirt or asphalt has fallen into the glass. Complex flavor with typical steamed rice/cacao rich flavor offset by a big spoonful of raspberry jam, with layers of yogurt and condensed milk, sea salt, banana pudding, Alfonso mango. Very creamy. Balanced with bitter touches of sour fruit such as lemon, apple, yet overall sweet, creamy, fruity. Can be served warm (not hot!) or cold. I preferred it warmed on the stove in a Tokkuri/Sake decanter steeped in a pot half filled with water. Remove from heat before it gets to boiling. I picked up flavors of melting chocolate from this, with slightly less of the yoghurt taste. I also got black pepper notes in long finish. The rice flavor was still strong, with a sharp bitterness that, as a lover of Gentians and other bitter European liqueurs, was satisfying to my palate. Coupled with the high acidity this produced notes similar to yuzu, pomelo and white grapefruit. Since my work involves creating cocktails, I would pair this with gin, in particular the Roku Gin produced by Suntory, made using Japanese botanicals. I’ll work on this idea further! Pairs well with a variety of dishes, beyond typical seafood and into lamb, beef and spicy dishes, including curries. Available from a variety of online shops, typically in the $30- 40 range. Including Tippsysake, Truesake, Umamimart, theartofsake, Socialsake in the US. Kanpai!