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


Ararat's Armenian Legacy

I'm a sucker for any type of alcoholic beverage with a long history of tradition and a legacy of quality. That's why when my friend Val brought me these Ararat Armenian brandies, I was highly intrigued. I've long known that Armenian brandy is to Eastern Europe what Cognac is to Western Europe. Production dates back to the 19th century in some cases and I've tasted a few older expressions over the years that have rivaled some of the finest French brandies in the world.

"When I was growing up in the Soviet Union," Val told me, "these were the top of the line. Ararat is what everyone drank. We even called it Cognac, not brandy."

There's a historic reason for that actually. First established in 1887, the Yerevan Brandy Company was formatted with Cognac-style Charente pot stills and began distilling brandy from Armenian-grown grapes near the foot of Mount Ararat. Thirteen years later the company took home the Grand-Prix award in Paris, impressing even the French with the quality of its brandy, and earning the honor of using the name Cognac. Since that time Russians have been referring to Ararat as Armenian Cognac rather than brandy. After having tasted through the line-up with Val earlier this week, I can see why. These brandies can hold their own with just about any producer from the Charentes. They are the real freakin' deal. Even the simple three year old brandy smokes just about any other competitor in its price point. I've already cleaned out half of the bottle I purchased on Tuesday. 

Photo of the vineyards from Araratbrandy.comIf you're a history buff, you might be interested in learning that Joseph Stalin gave Winston Churchill a bottle of Ararat brandy at the Yalta Conference and Churchill was so taken aback by its quality that he asked for several cases to be shipped after the meeting. In 2013, Putin gave Prime Minister David Cameron a bottle of Ararat as well in honor of that original exchange. Let me tell you something: world leaders aren't fucking around when they give gifts like this, so infer from these high-level interactions of world politics what you will! To make matters even more interesting (and a fact that was completely unknown to me until this week), Ararat was purchased in 1998 by Pernod-Ricard, so it's owned by the same folks who run the Glenlivet, Aberlour, and Midleton distilleries respectively. 

It looks like Pernod-Ricard is making a new push in California with the products, so we've got them in stock! Check out the website if you're interested in giving them a go. I'm completely smitten at the moment. I'm a bit embarrassed I didn't know about them sooner.

-David Driscoll


The Best Wine Event Ever Hosted? 

I finally nailed down Ryan Woodhouse this week and forced him to write about his epic hunting adventure in New Zealand this past month. The gritty first-hand account along with dazzling photos is now available at our On the Trail blog! Are you man enough to read it?

-David Driscoll


Rugged Manliness

My colleague Ryan Woodhouse is doing the wine version of Vladimir Putin this week, going shirtless in Central Otago while checking out the current New Zealand harvest. Make sure you check in with his travels on our On the Trail blog

-David Driscoll