Nama Sake

As I’ve mentioned recently I’ve been on a Japanese liquor kick, enjoying the hell out of various hard-to-get-but-delicious Japanese whiskies. Whisky, of course, is a comparatively new import to Japan. Their classic liquor production tradition subsists in two drinks: shochu, a distilled spirit probably first imported from the Asian mainland, and sake, a type of rice wine or rice beer.

A friend of mine recently stopped by Astor Wines in New York and asked me if I wanted anything. So I decided to peruse their web site and saw that they had a sake collection beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve always liked sake, but never been wild about it. Given the chance, I decided to take a risk and get a sake that was slightly more upscale and different from what I could find here in PA. My gamble paid off.

The terminology surrounding sake is imposing, as it is with most mature liquors. For our purposes here, the three terms that matter are junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo, in increasing order of likely expensiveness. Literally each of these specifies the amount of rice that must be polished away before fermentation, but I have a simpler explanation: if the sake contains one of these terms, you’re guaranteed (in theory) that no additional alcohol was added after fermentation. In other words, you can think of this as the sake equivalent of tequila’s “100% de agave” designation.

Second, it turns out there is a fairly fragile variety of sake called “nama”. Nama sake is unpasteurized, is highly perishable, and has a short shelf life. It needs to be refrigerated at all times until the bottle is opened, and then you should finish the bottle quickly. Since I have a prejudice, perhaps unjustified, that younger, fresher liquors are a better way to understand the true nature of a given type of booze, nama sake sounded like just what I wanted.

[Nama sake

Ohyama Junmai Nama sake

]( “Nama sake” )

One of the nice things about nama sake is that there aren’t that many to choose from, so it made the selection (done through a complicated process I call “choosing completely at random”) simpler. I ended up choosing “Ohyama Sake, Junmai Nama Tokubetsu”. Ohyama is the name of the producer. Junmai means the rice was milled to at most 60% of its original size. Nama means it was unpasteurized, and “tokubetsu” just means “special”, so there’s no particular meaning behind that. I paid $34 for a 720 ml bottle. It was properly refrigerated at Astor, and they warned my friend to keep it that way, which is a good sign.

I’ve always liked sake, but never felt most of the sake I’ve had was particularly spectacular. The Ohyama junmai nama is spectacular. It’s slightly on the sweet side, with a very beer-like character. The sweetness isn’t cloying; to the contrary, it nicely counterbalances the slightly astringent finish. When we drank it with dinner, immediately after opening, it was what beer tasters would call “estery”: full of volatile fruity-tasting compounds. Esters don’t actually taste like fruit; rather they hint at the aroma of fruit. I tasted melon and citrus esters in the Ohyama, along with a very faint, almost undetectable effervescence. This is what separated this nama sake from all of the other sakes I’ve tried thus far: it was clearly alive.

We finished about 34 of the bottle that night. By the next evening, much of the life had gone out of it. It was still a pleasant drink, an enjoyable drink, but it was no longer alive, and thus no longer seemed unique. So the admonitions about drinking it quickly are, I regret, true.

But perhaps this is part of its appeal. It’s the moments that pass quickly that we remember.