The Savory, Sake-Filled Skies of Tottori

I'm not sure exactly why Mantensei refers to its junmai ginjo sake as the "Star-Filled Sky," but I think it might have something to do with the Tottori Prefecture (where Matensei's Suwa brewery is located) being the least-populated in all of Japan. I'm thinking that with so few people around and so little light disturbance from the lack of a bustling cityscape, one must be able to see the star-filled sky with relative ease. One thing I do know for sure is that Tottori has some of the softest water in the country, which allows the Suwa brewery to ferment its sakes at extremely-low temperatures for extremely-long periods of time. If you've learned anything about whisky from this blog over the years, you'll probably recall that long fermentations lead to gentle, soft-fruited flavors; think of Oban as an example. 

Along with all that clean fruit flavor in the Mantensei "Star-Filled Sky" sake is a whole lotta earthiness—an earthy, almost umami note that practically screams for mushroom risotto or black truffles. Much like enzymes are introduced into a barley single malt mash during the cooking process, converting the starches into fermentable sugars, sake production uses a mold called koji to complete the same conversion with rice. Because the rice kernels are stripped of their husks, however, there can be no malting process which is why the enzyme must come from an outside source. The spores are sprinkled over the steamed rice, and then worked into the mixture either by hand or by a machine (as you can see from the above photo, they do everything by hand at Suwa). As most koji is cultivated by the producer itself in Japan, the Suwa brewery makes a very special style, utilizing higher temperatures to impart a different effect onto the mold. In the case of the "Star-Filled Sky" sake, quite a liberal amount of this special koji is introduced into the mix, resulting in a unique flavor in the final liquid.

As Monica Samuels, the national sake manager for the importer Vine Connections told me during our meeting, "Generally for ginjo/daiginjo types the koji-making is very delicate, referred to as 'tsuki-haze.'  In this style, you can still see the rice after the koji making with the white koji flecks all over it. At Suwa, however, the koji-making is done in a style called 'so-haze,' where the koji is heavily applied, resulting in a white frosting of sorts that completely coats the rice grain. It creates a lot more umami flavor, but koji mold also accelerates fermentation, making it difficult to achieve precision, so you have to be careful."

On the palate the resulting flavors range from soy sauce to caramel with almonds, with a dry yet rich finish that is simultaneously clean and refreshing. There's even a bit of smoke underneath all that savory goodness. As Monica went on to say, "Generally when you have that intense soy-caramel koji aroma, the finish can be cloying or flabby, but this sake is surprisingly clean on the finish. The fact that the rice is polished to junmai daiginjo grade and the fermentation is so carefully controlled creates the umami aromas, but with that clean finish; resulting in a sake that is much more drinkable. It is also a higher ratio of actual koji rice to non-koji (kakemai), but the application is what makes it so intense." The "Star-Filled Sky" from Mantansei is a bold and fragrant sake with intense aromas and savory richness. It's also a sake you might want to enjoy at room temperature. It was also a huge hit with the staff at our Tuesday tasting.

Mantensai "Star Filled Sky" Junmai Ginjo Sake $29.99

-David Driscoll


Revisiting Johnnie Walker

As any savvy shopper knows, it's not easy to find value in a market where everyone's searching for the same thing. We always have to laugh when a customer says something like, "I really like Willett 20 year and Jefferson's 18, but I want to keep it around twenty bucks. Do you have any recommendations?" When no one was drinking Bourbon there was serious value to be found in some of the more mature expressions. Now it's a different story. Ditto for single malt whisky. In the case of blended whisky, however, it's an interesting scenario because it's never been less popular with whisky sophisticates, but it's still the majority of what people drink. Marketing in any category tends to search for ways to send prospective shoppers over to more plentiful pastures, much like what we've been trying to do with our Armagnac and Cognac discoveries. That's what happened a decade ago when the industry began pushing single malts over blends. "You want the pure stuff with an age statement, not that blended slop with grain added," we were told by ambitious brand ambassadors. And the messaging worked! Now, however, with a supply chain that's been gutted, age statements a recent memory, and prices at all-time highs, single malt seems like less of a value proposition. It's because of those recent developments that I've been itching to go back through some of the standard blended portfolios and do a little pound-for-pound comparison against some of the more popular single malts. Since age-stated blends are typically cheaper than their single malt brethren, maybe there's more value to be had on that side of the market currently. It's been long overdue in finding out. What better place to start than with Johnnie Walker?

Luckily for myself and the K&L staff, our San Francisco store is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Diageo's new downtown tasting bar—a secret location set up for training the region's finest bars, restaurants, and retailers. I gathered the spirits crew—Kyle, Andrew, and Jeff Jones—and we headed over to the heavily-guarded hotspot. There to meet us was Diageo's new "Master of Whisky" Todd Richman who was incredibly well-versed on the Walker brand's history and its many particularities. We went through the full gambit—Red, Black, Double Black, Green, Platinum, Blue, as well as a number of one-offs—and I have to say we were all thoroughly impressed with our findings. Not one of us had tasted Walker Red in more than a decade and—I have to be honest here—I was quite taken aback by the quality. The richness, maltiness, balance of flavors, and pleasing finish were completely unexpected, especially for a mark that sells tens of millions of cases a year. "There are more than a billion people drinking Johnnie Walker Red around the world," Todd added at one point. No shit. I can see why. In a craft market that continues to up the price ante for one and two year old experiments (that may or may not even taste good), it's easy to get behind something incredibly satisfying with incomparable consistency that runs you about twenty bucks a bottle no matter where you go.

Todd was super generous in his offerings as well, pulling out antique versions of some of the main Walker expressions (like this Black Label from the 1950s) so that we could taste how the styles have evolved over the years. What I found most interesting, however, was how diverse our reactions were in response to our favorites. I gravitated towards the Platinum with its chewy, sherry-influenced palate; a surprising choice considering I wasn't a fan when the product was first introduced to the market. Either it's changed since then, or I have. Andrew thought the Red was simply too good for the money. Kyle enjoyed the rye-finished Select Cask most of all, and Jeff I think went with the standard Black Label. As Todd mentioned throughout the afternoon, Diageo's primary agenda is the consistency of quality throughout its Johnnie Walker portfolio, even if it means some of their single malt expressions suffer as a result. They'd rather run out of Caol Ila 12 and Clynelish 14 if it means keeping the various flavor profiles of the Walkers intact. 

As we left the appointment and walked down Battery Street under the sunny San Francisco sky, we asked one another: if the new age of limited edition single malt whisky is being marketed to drinkers who want to feel unique or special, then who's the target audience for Johnnie Walker? My response was: "It's for people who are comfortable enough to know what they like, to know what tastes good, and don't need to prove much of anything beyond that." Blended whisky seems like more of the value proposition these days, so long as you're fine with blending in.

-David Driscoll


Drink & Watch: Pee-wee's Big Holiday

Photo courtesy of NetflixIt is an incredibly rare and challenging feat, especially in the midst of this current thirst for nostalgia-driven reboot resurrections of our childhood past, to recapture both the fun and feeling of something long gone. Not only did I watch Pee-wee's Playhouse religiously as a kid, I devoured Tim Burton's movie adaptation of the childlike protagonist who embarks on a national quest to find his missing bicycle. More than thirty years after that initial adventure, and a half-decade after Paul Reubens revived his Pee-wee character on Broadway, I finally sat down to watch the Judd Apatow-produced, Netflix-original Pee-wee's Big Holiday. Then I watched it again. Then I watched it for a third time. The more I continue to think about it, the longer I can hold on to the warm afterglow that has permeated my soul since screening the film. Pee-wee's return to cinematic form is simply incredible. The man is sixty-three years old and he looks younger than me, a guy who is literally half his age. He hasn't missed a beat, either. 

In no way do I think new fans to the genre will be overly impressed with the result (although my young nephews ate it up). If you weren't a fan of Pee-wee before, there's no reason to believe you'll like the updated version. But that's because there isn't much of a difference! In many ways, Pee-wee's Big Holiday is simply an upgrade to his Big Adventure, albeit with fresh faces like Joe Manganiello (playing himself) who puts aside all of his manly machismo and shows a sensitive side that will often have you in complete stitches. It's a sign of how comfortable he is with his image and a true testament to his lack of ego. If you're a fan of the original film, then I have to think you're going to go ape shit for this one. There are great cameos throughout its entirety, plenty of classic Pee-wee encounters, and some serious laugh-out-loud moments that seem both new and familiar simultaneously.

As for what to pair with it? You can pair anything that makes you happy. I drank a bottle of Champagne the first time through to celebrate the occasion—a cold bottle of our 2009 Louise Brison that continues to impress the more I revisit it (much like the movie). The second time through I made cocktails—margaritas but with orgeat as the sweetener, which happened out of necessity, but is now a switch I might continue to make as a personal preference. This most recent time through I opened a few beers and kicked back with some family members. This is a party movie through and through. I've been riding a wave of nostalgia ever since, thinking about people and places from my past that I haven't thought about in years. I can't recommend this movie highly enough, both as a jolt of fresh creativity that I'm greatly in need of right now, as well as a welcome walk down memory lane. Few things age like fine wine anymore, but Paul Reubens is one of them. 

-David Driscoll


The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is one of the most iconic images in all of Japanese art, originally from a wood block print published in the 1830s by the artist Hokusai. It depicts a scene from the sea in the eponymous coastal prefecture just south of Tokyo, today famous for its laid-back vibe and beach community not unlike what we have here in nearby Santa Cruz. The most famous beaches in Japan are in Kanagawa and it's within that maritime setting that the Kumazawa Shuzo brewery is located, surrounded by the soothing sound of crashing waves; the same waves that are historically depicted in Kokusai's romantic illustration above, and the same waves that are today being shredded by some of Japan's most famous professional surfers. Founded in 1872, the facility has been family-owned for thirteen generations and continues to create world-class, yeast-oriented products.

Why write "yeast-oriented products" and not just beer and sake? Because beyond brewing, Kumazawa operates a bakery and pizza restaurant at their Kanagawa operation, using various strains of local yeast developed on site. You might say the Kumazawa family members are yeast experts, perfecting the nuances of fermentation over the last two centuries. As many of you whisky drinkers already know, both yeast and water play an incredibly important role in the ultimate flavor of a spirit, and the locale of certain distilleries—especially those located along the coast—can influence the liquid in a number of different ways. Much like one can taste the elements of Islay in each sip of Laphroaig, the same characteristics are apparent in one of my favorite sakes from Kumazawa: the Tensei "Song of the Sea."

Using a combination of both Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku rice (the latter of which often producers a clean, light, and refreshing style of sake), master brewer—or toji—Tetsuro Igarashi uses yeast strain #9 to impart a maritime influence on his homage to the sea. The sake is classified as junmai ginjo, meaning there is no fortification, only rice polished to 60%, koji mold, and water were used in the brewing. Intermingled in the palate are flavors of salt-water taffy and mineral notes from the highly-mineral water used in the production. It's balanced by the melon and apple fruit flavors created by the yeast strain, resulting in a saline and refreshing wave (pun intended) of sake deliciousness. 

Like many wines and a number of beers and spirits, the ultimate character of the sake is also determined by the cuisine with which it's meant to be enjoyed. You could pair the "Song of the Sea" with a number of seafood options, but also spicier more exotic flavors like curry and, due to the acidity, fattier and richer textures like lamb or even beef. It's such a versatile and delicious sake that, in my opinion, it's a great place to start if you're looking to jump down the sake rabbit hole. We've currently got it in stock for $34.99. Grab some glasses, call a few friends, and start your weekend with a bottle of the Tensei.

And picture the Wave Off Kanagawa washing over you as you enjoy each delicious sip.

-David Driscoll


American Romanticism & Sake

Over the last seven years of buying the spirits for K&L I've seen plenty of customers max out as it pertains to Scotch whisky. One minute a guy can't get enough new single malt, the next he's wondering what to do with all of it. I always find it funny when whisky companies confuse American sales with consumption. "You guys are sure drinking a lot of single malt over there in the States," they'll say. Drinking it? Maybe. Buying it? Certainly. There are limits to how much liquor we can consume as a populace, but we can sure as hell keep buying it. There's only so much we can buy before our other halves begin thinking we have a serious hoarding problem, but you have to admire our enthusiasm here in America. We love buying more booze. We're single-handedly keeping long-dormant industries afloat with our cagey cocktail curiosity. Rye whiskey? That industry was in the toilet until we all became obsessed with Mad Men. Scotch whisky? Scotch was for grandfathers and professors until America's new found love of single malt began the renaissance. Today the United States consumes.....excuse me.....purchases more single malt than any other nation in the world. Armagnac? The French sure as hell aren't drinking it. Mezcal? I spit out more mezcal in a week during tasting appointments than all of Mexico consumes. Here in America we're obsessed with the drinking cultures of foreign cultures, even if those cultures themselves are no longer interested. It's kind of like surfing in California; the transplants are far more passionate about it than the locals.

But that's how American drinking romanticism works. We look at the ideal in any genre and glorify that image in our minds until we can no longer keep our credit cards at bay. Whether we actually get around to enjoying that purchase is almost secondary. The idea of glamorous and exotic beverages being created and consumed elsewhere personally gets me all tingly. I can't control myself. I'm currently going through another Japanese sake phase; a long-standing idealistic hangover from the few days I spent in Tokyo a while back. To me, sake takes the best parts of wine, beer, and whisky appreciation and combines them all into one. You get the potential for food pairing and the joy of a meal accompaniment like you have with wine. You can geek out about the production methods and the impact of yeast and water like you can with whisky (and, like whisky, sake keeps far longer than your standard bottle of wine).  The best part about it, however, is that—like beer—sake is brewed, so there are almost two thousand different breweries scattered all over Japan, creating regional styles that can be enjoyed seasonally. Sake can enhance your dinner, engage your mind, and there's enough of it to keep you occupied for years and years.

I drank a lot of sake when I was in Japan, as did this business man taking a nap outside his local sake bar. The Japanese drink a fair amount of the stuff, but sales are still on the decline nationally as the populace continues to be obsessed with American wine and whiskey. But don't think that the Japanese sake brewers have taken that news lying down. Over the last ten years or so, there has been a considerable movement among Japan's quality-driven sake producers to up the ante and create more graceful, complex liquids to help bolster a new quality-oriented renaissance. Much like the craft beer movement in the U.S. has changed the perception of how we view beer (no longer just a cold can to crush at the end of a long day), the push from industry leaders to improve the quality of sake as a whole, as well as expand to a new generation of curious drinkers has created a new hope for the genre. That curiosity has been spreading across the Pacific as well and, as you've probably assumed by this point after reading the first few paragraphs, guess who's helping to lead the charge? That's right! America! The U.S. is the number one export market for Japanese sake, bolstered by a fever pitch for all things Japanese right now: whisky, sushi, Pokemon—you name it. We're certifying new sake sommeliers in the Bay Area every day, and there are now American-born sake sales ambassadors making frequent calls at K&L.

However, the real challenge for sake, and in my opinion the key to its continued growth, lies in the consumption of sake with all types of cuisine, not just Japanese. We drink wine with just about anything these days—from Chinese food to hamburgers. We drink beer with Indian food, Thai food, and Mexcian food—there are no rules when it comes to cervesa. But sake? Most Americans only drink sake with sushi, or when they go out for izakaya. I worked at a Japanese restaurant all throughout college and the only time people drank sake in those days was when they dropped it into a cold mug of Sapporo for a Sake Bomb. With the current increase in sake quality, however, I've started to pair fine sake with cheese plates, salads, smoked meats, and standard Tuesday night television. Sake is still mysterious to a great many Americans and, like tequila, most older drinkers still associate it with a bad hangover from a frat party. But you'd be doing yourself and the beverage a disservice by letting previous associations dissuade you from giving sake another go. 

The problem, of course, is the learning curve. How do you know what to buy? Where do you even start? What's good? What's bad? What doesn't taste like paint thinner? What's a ginjo versus a daiginjo? Don't worry! I'm going to help you with all that. Starting this week I'm going to do a few producer profiles covering some of my favorite Japanese sake breweries. I think we'll have some compelling stories to tell you with enough romanticism to get your American blood pumping and your bleeding heart racing. 

Until then!

-David Driscoll