This Kyoto sake tour made us sake enthusiasts!
While writing this article, we are drinking a nice bottle of Junmai Daiginjo sake that we selected and purchased at a local bottle shop using the knowledge we gained at Kyoto Insider Sake Experience (https://kyotosakeexperience.com). Three hours before and we would have had no clue what to do in the shop.
A Quick Video of Our Experience
As pretty avid wine connoisseurs, we felt similar about sake as we did when we first started drinking wine – we knew a little bit and we wanted to learn more, but we found it to be quite intimidating. Especially the labels – how would we ever be able to figure out what we were looking at!
What is sake?
Sake (Japanese Rice Wine) is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting sake rice that has been polished (milled down) to remove the bran, which is the part of the rice grain that surrounds the starchy center.
Fushimi Sake District
We signed up for the Kyoto Insider Sake Experience not knowing that the Fushima District of Kyoto is the second largest sake producing region in Japan and home to more than 30 breweries.
381-year-old Family Run Brewery
Gekkeikan Okura Sake brewery is the largest and oldest sake brewery in Fushimi. It has been owned by 14 generations of the same family!
We had the opportunity to visit the facility and were taken back to see where the brewmaster does his work. This is where Kotaro, our guide and Kyoto Insider Sake Experience Owner, provided us with an excellent education on the sake making process, including things like the impact of water on sake type, various rice species, rice processing, the need for fungi in the process, fermentation, and much more!
It was really intriguing information, and it was fun for us to compare and contrast the wine making process to that of sake making. Kotaro even had large laminated graphics and charts, which made learning about the process much easier.
Every sake producer has their own spring, which has an impact on the best style of sake. As Kotaro explained, soft water is better for making sweet sake, while hard water (which has more more minerals) is best for dry styles. The Fushimi District is best known for sweeter style sake due to the soft water in the region.
A cedar ball hanging outside of a building (see photo below) indicates that it is a sake brewery, restaurant or bottle shop. The ball in the photo is green because this year’s sake has just been released at this brewery.
One of the major benefits of participating in the Kyoto Insider Sake Experience is that very few sake breweries have tasting rooms. Those that do, including the one we visited, generally only have two or three sakes to try…even though they make many more. In addition, they don’t provide much instruction on the sake making process, differences in style, etc., especially not in English. Other than taking the tour that we did, we’re not sure how else we would have learned so much or have had the opportunity to try so many different types of sake.
While at the the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum and brewery, we had the opportunity to try two sakes and one plum wine. The sakes were very good and the plum wine reminded us a bit of port and other fortified wines.
Helpful Cheat Sheet
For this portion of the experience, Kotaro provided each of us with a business card sized “cheat sheet” that provided, in a very easy to understand format, details on the most common sake types, their names in English and Japanese, and a chart on the other side that helps you understand what types of sake are sweet vs. dry and rich vs light.
We put this card to good use immediately after the tour when we visited a bottleshop to purchase some sake!
Did You Know…
We then went back to the Kyoto Insider Sake Experience tasting room to try seven different sakes, both with and without food. Without getting into too much detail, here are some interesting facts that we learned:
There is pure rice sake and sake with alcohol added. The alcohol-added varieties are NOT lower quality. In fact, the brewmaster adds the alcohol to enhance the flavor of the sake and to make it lighter in style.
The more of the rice grain that is polished/milled away generally indicates the higher quality of the sake and is what dictates the name/style. For example, Junmai pure rice sake had its rice polished so that 70% of less of the original rice grain is remaining. The next level up, Junmai Ginjo, has 60% or less remaining. The highest level up, Junmai Daiginjo, has 50% or less remaining. Interesting!
Both of these numbers, the alcohol by volume and rice polishing percentage, can be found on sake bottles. This allows people like us, who don’t speak Japanese, to easily determine the type and level of sake we are looking at.
Sake is NOT meant to be consumed as a shot/shooter…it is something to be sipped and savored.
The word “sake” in Japanese means alcohol…any alcohol…including beer, wine, etc. When in Japan, ask for “nihonshu”, which specifically references Japanese liquor, aka the sake (rice wine) you are looking for!
So how did it taste?
We have only had sake a few times before, and it was the low quality sake often found in the United States. This was nothing at all like that.
As Kotaro guided us through the tasting and explained the rice polishing percentage, acidity, and Sake Meter Value of each, we were amazed at the range of flavors and mouthfeel/texture. Some were very light with just a bit of fruit flavor (interesting since there is no fruit in sake brewing!), while others were much richer and fuller flavored.
We also had the opportunity to try an unpasteurized and undiluted sake, a cloudy sake, and a 19-year-old aged sake. All were unique in their own ways. For us, it was just like wine. Different styles for different people, depending on what you are in the mood for.
Also like wine, sake is meant to be enjoyed with food. Kotaro provided us with a beautiful plate of food and had us compare and contrast how the various sakes tasted with different types of food (meat, cheese, edamame, pickled vegetables, etc.).
For dessert, he then poured some of the 19-year-old sake over a small dish of ice cream. It…was…amazing! Think of how good a nice homemade rum sauce tastes on ice cream. It reminded us a bit of that.
As with wine, it is often best to pair local sake with local food.
Helpful Video on Selecting Sake
We were so pleased with our experience that we helped Koturo create his very first YouTube video! It is about how to choose a bottle of sake when visiting Japan…even if you don’t speak Japanese!
Putting Our Knowledge to the Test
After leaving Kyoto Insider Sake Experience, we spotted a bottle shop across the street and thought that there was no better time to test our new knowledge than the present! Armed with our cheat sheet card and feeling happy after tasting quite a few types of sake, we successfully navigate the shop and found what we were looking for…a nice bottle of Junmai Daiginjo, which was produced by a brewery in operation since 1645.
We highly recommend Kyoto Insider Sake Experience to anyone visiting the region. It was a very enjoyable and informative three hours. Unless you speak Japanese or have a friend who knows sake, we can’t think of a better way to learn about this delicious drink.
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