Thursday, June 18, 2015

How good is American sake? The 2015 update

Great sake is still made by hand
Good Japanese sake is still significantly better than the best U.S. sake. There, I just saved you reading a bunch of tasting notes.*

* Though that said, people often ask me to run tasting notes of wines I don't like. Here's your chance!

It's important to test that supposition periodically. I'm a patriot. One day perhaps I'll write, "There's a U.S. sake that's right up there with good Japanese sake!" When I do, I'll use that exclamation point. But that day still seems far off.

It's a shame, with an estimated 75% of the sake sold in the U.S. being made here, that many Americans have never tasted a great sake. And it turns out it doesn't help to buy a sake made in Japan specifically for a label-savvy U.S. company.

The kind folks at SakéOne in Oregon sent me their lineup of domestically made sakes, not the ones infused with raspberry or coconut lemongrass, which I'm sure are big sellers, but the sake-flavored sakes. They should know good sake because they also import a couple of pretty good brands, Yoshinogawa and Hakutsuru.

I also got a new product called Hiro from a New York importer that is having it made for them in Niigata, one of the best sake prefectures in Japan. The bottle looks terrific, I love the name, and there's no reason it shouldn't be delicious, right? Well, other than this, which is the way it's being marketed:

That's not cheap! And do you ever see wine (also gluten-free and usually 15% alcohol or less) marketed that way? On the box the Hiro bottle comes in, it gives a third option: on the rocks. Sure, you can drink a $40 wine cold, hot or on the rocks, but ...

Nowhere in the PR email does it say Hiro is delicious by itself. Granted, PR bullshit is PR bullshit, but when the only good thing you have to say about your brand is that it's lower in alcohol than vodka and you can successfully hide its flavor in a cocktail (the first suggestion involved pineapple puree, which I know I keep in the fridge in case my Chardonnay isn't tasty), then you should be very afraid.

Well, I try to keep an open mind. With my wife, who is from the Land of the Rising Sun, I tasted all the Momokawa sakes and both Hiros. Here are the notes.

Momokawa Silver "Dry Crisp" Junmai Ginjo 14.8% alcohol
A good start: this is the one sake in the lineup I would drink, not because I love it, but because I don't dislike it, and it aligns best with my personal tastes for drier sake. It's clean and simple, with a light rice taste and no fruitiness or standout flavors. On the plus side, there aren't any off notes of the type that have long plagued U.S. sake, and it doesn't taste alcoholic. If you served it to me blind at a sushi bar, I wouldn't sing its praises, but I'd finish the glass, and that's something.

Momokawa Diamond "Medium Dry" Junmai Ginjo 14.8%
This is called "medium dry" and that is, literally, the sweet spot for most of Japan's greatest sakes, which are neither bone dry or very sweet. Unfortunately this is the weakest in the lineup: it smells like hair tonic and tastes alcoholic. My wife said if she had to drink one Momokawa sake, because Japan was wiped out by a combined Godzilla-Mothra-Gamera invasion or something, this would be her choice, "because I really hate the others," she said.

Momokawa Ruby "Lightly Sweet" Junmai Ginjo
This is lightly sweet like croquettes are lightly fried. It's too sweet for me to consider with a meal, though not quite sweet enough -- and not near delicious enough -- for a dessert drink. It also tastes alcoholic. My wife has a sweet tooth, usually likes much sweeter sake than me, and says this is too sweet for her.

Momokawa Pearl Nigori Junmai Ginjo 18%
I'm not a nigori sake drinker. It's the White Zinfandel of sake, a sweet introduction to the beverage that benefits tremendously in the U.S. by being incorrectly called "unfiltered" on sake lists. This unearned "natural" cache gives Americans cover to have an alcoholic milkshake with their raw fish. I'd rather convince U.S. wine drinkers to try sake for grownups than boost the already hot nigori market. But to be fair to this sake, it tastes less alcoholic than the Diamond or Ruby even though it's 20% higher in alcohol. It's sweeter than most Japanese versions, but plenty of Americans drink Coca-Cola with dinner. Nigori is such a minor product in Japan and many Japanese breweries make it cynically for the U.S. market; a few others misunderstand what Americans want and make a drier product that must come as a shock to people expecting something like this. Momokawa at least hits market expectations with this. My wife also reports it's too sweet for her, but she's not a nigori sake drinker either.

I was more forgiving of this product before I opened a bottle of Kamoizumi "Summer Snow" Nigori Ginjo (18.1%) to taste against the Momokawa Pearl. Occasionally when I write one of these "American sakes aren't at the level of Japanese" pieces I take some heat from patriots like myself. I wish those people would also try this test. You don't even need to put them in your mouth. In fact,  smelling the difference, I said out loud, "My God."

The Kamoizumi smells like rice; the Momokawa smells like cereal milk. It's the same on the palate. The Kamoizumi is a little sweet and nigori's not really my thing, but it tastes like rice; it has texture; it tastes like a farm product. The alcohol is well-integrated and for what it is, it's balanced.
Tasted after it, the Momokawa tastes boozy, overly sweet and artificial. It doesn't taste like a farm product; it tastes like a fast-food vanilla milkshake with too much booze in it. I suppose this description would be appealing to a lot of people. Count me out.

Also, my wife points out that unlike Japanese sakes, Momokawa doesn't print a bottling date on the bottle of any of these. Most Americans can't read the arcane dating system Japanese sake producers use. But they do date them, so those who can read it know what it means, whereas nobody knows how old a bottle of Momokawa is. These were press samples so I assume they were fresh.

So much for made in America. Now let's see if Hiro is better than Tyku.

Hiro "Red" Junmai Sake 15% alcohol
It's very sweet. Many great Japanese sakes are sweet, but they're mostly Junmai Daiginjos. When you buy a straightforward Junmai, you expect earthiness and power, not sugar. This strikes me as a product made for what are presumed to be U.S. tastes. In fact, this is sweeter than Momokawa Ruby. I hope it doesn't succeed. There's no complexity, it's just a blast of rice sweetness and booze that seems best used in a sake cocktail. I find this sake offensive.

Hiro "Blue" Junmai Ginjo Sake 15%
This is also sweet, but less offensively so. It has a lighter body and more finesse on the finish than the Momokawa sakes. I don't know that I would drink it. My wife, more tolerant of sweetness, says that if it were served to her in a Japanese restaurant, she would drink it. It's her favorite of this group of sakes, whereas I went back to the Momokawa Silver and said, "If I must."

We did not actually drink any of these, though. We opened a bottle of Dewazakura Dewasansan and sighed with relief at the deliciousness. Do yourself a favor, America. Buy the real thing.

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Kimberly C. said...

Blake if you look at the bottom of the Momokawa label on the reverse under the back label you will see the bottled on date which has been the case from the get go with the entire line. Given it is the #1 selling junmai gingo sake in the U.S., they must be doing something right!

W. Blake Gray said...

Kimberly: If Momokawa is the No. 1 selling junmai ginjo sake in the U.S., which I don't doubt, they must be outstanding at marketing and sales. Momokawa is the Yellow Tail of sake!

W. Blake Gray said...

Kimberly: I've still got the Momokawa Pearl bottle and I'm sorry, but I cannot find the date. Is that because it's a press sample, perhaps?