Faster than a speeding bullet train, I am at the Ponshu-kan shop within the Echigo-Yuzawa train station. I slide my 500¥ coin across the counter in exchange for five tokens. Then, giddy-eyed, I scan a wall of 120 taps dispensing saké from across Niigata Prefecture. Each one has tasting notes. I place my cup in the slot, insert the token, and twist. Out pours 1.5 ounces. If I drink 100 cups, I get my name on the board!
Saké is Japan’s national beverage. The key ingredients to Junmai-style saké are water, rice, koji (fermenting agent) and yeast. Japanese water is soft. The sakamai rice used has a larger grain. During the multiple-parallel-fermentation, starch moves to the middle of the grain while the fat and proteins form a husk around it. The more the husk is milled, the higher the grade.
Water is the secret to the saké, which, for locals, is the only reprieve from the harsh winters. With its pristine water supply and more than 90 breweries—the most in Japan—Niigata’s saké is clean, dry, crisp and known for its mellow sweetness and aromatics. What is particularly special about saké from this area is the great depth of snowfall that cleans the air and water. Massive amounts of snow pack the rice fields two metres deep. It also attracts ski-buffs from around the world who appreciate hot springs and fine saké after a long day on the mountain slopes. When the snow melts, it naturally filters underground over hundreds of years to a superior softness.
In ancient times, women working at shrines chewed on steamed rice until it became sweet. They would then put their manducated mouthfuls into a bowl, and wait until it became alcohol. Oh how times have changed. Today, the process of making saké is delicate and refined, and there are so many variables to eliciting its subtle qualities.
Raised on Uncle Ben’s, I never thought I would describe rice as “delicious,” but the harvests in Niigata are without parallel. Rice for saké is more solid and is high in glucose. Applying more can make the saké sweeter; less can make it dry. The yeast provides distinct flavours and floral aromas like banana, melon and pineapple. At Hakkaisan, the koji is sprinkled onto the rice as it rests on a bed under a blanket in a 40°C room. In another facility, 800 tanks are stirred by hand. This personal touch provides unique personality. In order to keep the saké at a cool 5°C, 1,000 tons of snow are packed into the warehouse and last throughout the summer. It certainly helps with the electrical bills.
At the adjacent Nagasaka Soba restaurant the menu complements the saké. We pair Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo with soba and vegetables steamed with koji to elicit an umami flavour. A blend of three types of rice milled to 50 percent, this Junmai Ginjo expresses the purity, mellow elegance and typicity of the region. In the café we eat cake made with the sake ́lees, drink sweet amazaké, and gaze out the window as monkeys dart out of the woods toward us. It seems so otherworldly.
Understated, saké doesn’t fight with food; it plays a supporting role in elevating a meal. Saké cleans the palate between courses. Higher acid levels pair with more fatty, oily foods. Generally, strong flavours require stronger saké; lighter flavours, lighter saké. Pair sushi and sashimi with a medium grade saké, for example. Higher-grade saké should be enjoyed on its own. Most saké is served chilled. Warming it can ruin the delicate flavours and aromas, so earthier styles like Honjyozo from Hakkaisan are well suited to being warmed.
At Obata Shuzo Brewery we sample Manotsuru Genshu. Unrefined and unpasteurized, the stronger flavour pairs with fried meat like pork tonkatsu. It also complements marbled steak and fatty seafood. Bull’s Eye is sweet and voluminous, and could match steak with ponzu, hoisin or a thin vermouth-based cream sauce. The Daiginjo is smooth, clean, mild and sweet, and pairs with mild, sweet and creamy dishes, with flavours like coconut or maple.
Kikusui Brewery’s Perfect Snow is coconut-textured and ideal on its own or in a Piña Colada. Funaguchi, full-bodied with intense fruity aroma, is sold in a can because it is unpasteurized, so the enzymes are still active and need protection from the light. It is perfect with grilled steaks and burgers, lemon chicken or prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella. With the Junmai Ginjo try smoked salmon with goat cheese and orange marmalade. More than a brewery, Kikusui is a museum, library and research facility to educate us on the future as well as the history of saké. Ceramic dishes and bowls, as well as drinking games from 500 years ago are on display, while a temperature- controlled room of titanium-sealed bottles tests how saké will age.
Ten-time gold medal winner, Taiyo Saké Brewery polishes rice, on average, to 60 percent, meaning that the grain is milled down by 40 percent to an elegance that is a crisp and dry reflection of Niigata. The To-ji (brew master) suggests pairing by texture—cloudy saké with thick dishes like stew. Taiyo harvests strawberries as well as its own rice. Their strawberry liqueur is a surprisingly clean and complex elixir. The sweet and aromatic Junmai Daiginjo pairs harmoniously with Niigata’s renowned wagyu, the juicy and robust Murakami beef, as well as with local salmon.
Murakami is where the spawning habits of salmon in Japan were discovered. The Iyoboya Salmon Museum within Salmon Park tells us all about it, but I’d rather skip ahead to Tesshou Kikkawa’s salt-salmon shop for a taste. Standing under a canopy of 1,100 salmon hanging to dry from the ceiling, Kikkawa tells me his wife will make it look pretty, he just makes it taste good. Flavours vary by salmon type, season in which they’re caught, and whether they’re boiled, grilled, salted or steamed. The roe, the most prized in all Japan, is marinated in local Junmai Daiginjo, mirin and soy sauce. Each orange pearl is a salty pop of flavour that is refreshingly heightened by pairing with the house saké.
There is a social ritual to drinking saké. Long ago, soldiers would pour for each other to establish good relationships and teamwork before battle. It is as much a sign of deference and camaraderie as it is a complement to a meal. Entrenched in the Japanese culture, when we pour saké, we don’t pour into our own cup, but into another’s. It is a gesture of friendship.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.