The Spirits of Japan

Japan Spirits
Posted on: August 24, 2018

Brian Preston – The Travelling Sommelier

No this is not a story about the spirits that roam the famous, or should I say infamous, Aokigahara, a forest northwest of majestic Mount Fuji so thick with foliage that it’s known as the Sea of Trees and famous as a place where Japanese will go to commit suicide. This is a lighter tale of what I think is the most beautiful country in the world which produces a range of beers, some wines, and several world class single malt whiskies. It is also the home of Sake which comes in a myriad of styles and tastes. Did you know that sake is not a distilled alcohol? It is brewed! The prepared rice is washed and fermented creating

Junmai-shu: This can be translated as pure rice sake. Nothing is used in its production except rice (milled down 30%), water, and koji, the magical mold that converts the starch in the rice into fermentable and non-fermentable sugars. The taste of junmai-shu is usually a bit heavier and fuller than other types, making it a good match with foods.

Honjozo-shu: Honjozo is sake made with a bit of distilled ethyl alcohol (called brewers alcohol) to the fermenting sake at the final stages of production producing a lighter sake, sometimes a bit drier, and in the opinion of many, easier to drink. Water is added later, so that the overall alcohol content does not change and it also makes the fragrance of the sake more prominent. Honjozo often makes a good candidate for warm sake. Note that most run-of-the-mill cheap sake has an excessive amount of brewers alcohol added to it, which is not good. Honjozo has only a very small amount of added alcohol.

Ginjo-shu: This is sake made with rice that has been polished (milled) so that no more than 60% of its original size remains. In other words, at least the outer 40% has been ground away. This removes things like fats and proteins and other things that impede fermentation and cause off-flavors. But that is only the beginning: ginjo-shu is made in a very labor intensive way, fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. The flavor is more complex and delicate, and both the flavor and the fragrance are often (but not always) fruity and flowery. It should be served cold.

Daiginjo-shu: Daiginjo-shu is ginjo-shu made with rice polished even more, so that no more than 50% of the original size of the grain remains, and some are even milled to 65% before brewing. Daiginjo is made in even more painstaking ways, with even more labor intensive steps, so this is the most expensive sake. It too should be served cold.

LCBO now carries a range of sake and if you can get a plum sake, it is a fruity and wonderfully semi sweet way to end an oriental meal. The LCBO also carries the following Japanese beer brands too.

The three main beer producers in Japan are Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo. Asahi Super Dry is Japan’s most popular beer, and is known the world over. It has a light, crisp, and bitter aftertaste which matches Japanese food very well. Kirin Lager is a Japanese pale lager-style beer which has a nice grain aroma and crisp taste. Sapporo is the oldest brand of beer in Japan, founded in 1876. The legend began with the adventurous spirit of Seibei Nakagawa, Japan’s first German-trained brewmaster. Sapporo Premium Beer is a refreshing lager with a crisp, refined flavor and a clean finish. Kampai! It was a magical cold night in November a couple of years ago visiting the old Sapporo brewery on Hokkaido, the north island of Japan. The building was lit up, there was no snow but a few flakes were falling, and the trees in the compound had Christmas lights on them making it feel more like a German Christmas Market! The old brewery is no longer used as such but now it is a restaurant with an all-you-can-eat/drink  prix fixe menu of lamb strips and vegetables which you cook on a hot metal dome like the helmets used by Genghis Khan’s army which they put over a fire to cook with. Sapporo Beer Garden Genghis Khan Hall (  Kessel Hall is a huge, open concept, multi-storey post and beam hall housing  a giant beer-brewing cauldron/kessel which was made in 1912 looming over all the tables and diners.

As for single malts, I discovered The Yamazaki 18 Year Old (($119 in 2014), by Suntory Distillery located between Kyoto and Osaka on the main island of Honshu, an absolutely gorgeous single malt at 43%abv with oak age taking on ripe apple, violet and a deep, sweet oakiness. It has a mossy, pine-like character and a richness in the middle mouth that Yamazaki is known for. At Nikka Distillery in Yoichi on the north coast of Hokkaido, I discovered Nikka Distillery’s Nikka Miyagikyo 10 Year Old ($16 for 375ml in 2014) a single malt with a floral nose: lilies and lilac with a touch of anise in the background; taste: balanced, crisp oak, some butterscotch notes and a pine-like finish. Great value! It is also home to a great museum and multiple buildings to tour the entire production process of making single malt started in 1934 by the Father of Japanese Whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, who also built Yamazaki Distillery, the first in Japan in 1924. In 2001 their whisky was rated Best in the World!

I know that I mentioned Japanese wines at the outstart, but even after 5 trips to Japan I still feel that they are ‘nothing to write about’…so I won’t. Cheers!