The sake media, both of us, were probably the only people who didn't love this year's downsized Joy of Sake in San Francisco, which even had a name befitting its smaller ambitions: Yoshi's Sake Soiree.
For the average person, who Jay McInerney calls "civilians," $60 for this event was a great deal: all the sake you could drink, and all award winners, as well as all the food from Yoshi's kitchen that you could stand waiting in line for. A live jazz quartet played near the Kobe beef line, and everybody I saw was having a blast.
If you went for a party, it was a good one. But for professional sake tasting, forget it. Pity, too, because the sake lineup was extraordinary: 140 sakes that won gold and silver medals from the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, held in Honolulu in August.
Official sake judges work differently from wine judges. With wine, you're generally looking for character as a plus. With sake, you're looking for flaws as a minus. The distinction is important, because medal-winning sakes might not be as flavorful as some runners-up. However, it's easier to get consistent judging results with sake, because while nobody agrees on what's good, most people agree on what's a flaw.
I tasted 65 sakes at the soiree before they ran out of supplies. For most of the sakes there was only one bottle. This would be annoying for trade or media tasters, but few people in this category showed up. Again, for civilians, while most of the exclusive sakes ran out, the event was nowhere near out of sake when it ended.
The conditions for professional tasting were less than ideal: crowds, poor lighting, no spit buckets (brought my own), and if you wanted water, you had to beg a bartender who would rather serve a paying customer.
The upshot is, I have less confidence in my judgment than I ordinarily would. I took tasting notes on 65 sakes, but I didn't linger with them, nor could I remember which I tasted while being jostled or otherwise distracted by the crowd. So, what to do with the notes?
Below are notes only for my favorite of the 41 medal-winning daiginjos from the event. Daiginjos are the most highly polished and expensive sakes, and I went to them first because I was sure they would run out first (they did). Of the 41 sakes, 23 are not available in the US -- one reason that the sake media (hi Alder) so badly wanted to taste as much as we could.
I don't think it's fair for me to list the ones I didn't like because I might have liked them under less challenging circumstances. But the ones I liked, I'm sure I would like again at a quiet sushi bar.
On the names: I had no time to check the names on the bottles, so I'm relying on the names from the program, which may not be entirely accurate. I've listed the region where each sake is from, and whether the sake got a gold or silver medal.
Most of the time I'm glad to be a professional drinker. Civilians rejoice -- this was one time the people not spitting and taking notes had the right idea.
Available in US
Born "Tokusen" Junmai Daiginjo
Fukui prefecture, gold
Green plum and fig flavors with some fresh cream. Great fruit, medium body, smooth mouthfeel. 93
Dewazakura "Ichiro" Daiginjo
Yamagata prefecture, gold
It's a hit -- and since it's Ichiro, of course it's a single. Fairly potent daiginjo with nice green apple fruit and some brown sugar. 90
Hakurosuishu Junmai Daiginjo
Yamagata prefecture, silver
Light and lovely, with jasmine flavors that segue into a sweet milk candy finish. 92
Masumi "Yumedono" Daiginjo
Nagano prefecture, gold
Clean green apple flavor with notes of graham cracker. Somewhat sweet on the long finish. 91
Murai Family Daiginjo
Aomori prefecture, gold
From Momokawa, parent company of the Oregon brewery. Jasmine tea flavors and a body that feels like it gets richer as it evolves. 91
Okunomatsu Daiginjo Shizukusake "Juhachidai Ihei"
Fukushima prefecture, silver
Creamy like slightly sweet milk, with just a little herbal prickle on the tongue. 90
Tamagawa "Gold Medal" Daiginjo
Kyoto prefecture, silver
Like a pine forest, but with a slight sweetness and a gentle mouthfeel. I like the foresty/herbal nature of it, which would pair well with certain foods. 91
Ugonotsuki Junmai Daiginjo
Hiroshima prefecture, silver
Starts rugged, with a meaty note, and ends floral, with a little green apple fruit along the way. Long finish. Very interesting sake. 92
Yuki no Bosha "Akita Sake Komachi" Daiginjo
Akita prefecture, silver
Strong rice flavor initially, and slightly hot, but a lovely long, floral finish. 91
Not available in US
Amabuki "Aiyama" Daiginjo
Saga prefecture, silver, not available in US
Green grape and melon flavors in a medium-bodied, slightly sweet sake that just keeps going on. Long finish makes it a winner. 91
Fukuchitose "Fuku" Daiginjo
Fukui prefecture, gold, not available in US
Strong green melon flavor, also some green papaya. Wine-like. Finish is a bit abrupt. 91
Hakugakusen "Sen Daiginjo"
Fukui prefecture, silver, not available in US
Very sweet, almost dessert like, but nice melon, peaches and cream flavor. Not my preferred style, but good for those with a sweet tooth. 90
Hanagaki "Premium Gentei Shichiemon" Daiginjo
Fukui prefecture, gold, not available in US
Vibrant peach and mango; extremely fruity, with a creamy mouthfeel. Delicious. 94
Kariho "Koun" Daiginjo
Akita prefecture, gold, not available in US
Complex and interesting, with notes of green melon, fresh flowers, mild citrus and vanilla cream. 94
Kyoto prefecture, gold, not available in US
Initial bitter orange flavor turns floral on midpalate, though the finish is a bit hot. 90
Koshi no Hana "Chotokusen" Daiginjo
Niigata prefecture, silver, not available in US
Initially seems one-dimensional, with a slightly sweet milkiness, but it leaves a lovely floral aftertaste that's more interesting than its primary flavors. 90
Mizubasho "Daiginjo Premiere"
Gunma prefecture, gold, not available in US
Floral, spicy and complex, with notes of cumin and cinnamon and a floral finish. 93
Okunomatsu Junmai Daiginjo
Fukushima prefecture, silver, not available in US
Lovely and delicate; light bodied, with rose petal notes. To me this is the essence of daiginjo -- delicacy and elegance -- yet in fairness it would be overpowered by most food. I'd sip it alone or with white-flesh fish sashimi. 93
Rihaku Junmai Daiginjo
Shimane prefecture, silver, not available in US
Tastes brewed, yeasty and almost beery at first, but it finishes clean with a floral snap. 90
Seishu Sanran Daiginjo
Tochigi prefecture, gold, not available in US
Intense and complex, with strong jasmine and pear flavors and a long finish. 93
Shirakabe Gura Daiginjo
Hyogo prefecture, gold, not available in US
A big daiginjo, medium-full bodied with potent green apple and fresh cream flavors. 90
Taikan "Hizoshu" Daiginjo
Ibaraki prefecture, gold, not available in US
Very fruity, with green apple and pear notes. Slightly hot. 90
Zaku "Daichi" Daiginjo
Mie prefecture, gold, not available in US
Sweet, milky and rich, with cream and coconut flavors. Good if you have a sweet tooth. 90