Ekiben and kappu
What’s the point of single-serving sake? OK, you are at the train station coming back home from a difficult but successful business trip. It’s a 2-hour journey and you want to relax a bit and have a tasty ekiben on the train. Oh, sorry, ekiben is a bento, a Japanese packed lunch sold at train stations throughout Japan. It comes from two words: “eki” (駅), a station and “ben” (弁), from “bento”, a packed lunch. Put them together, and you’ve got a bento sold at train stations!
Anyway, as you don’t have any work today, you want to have a small alcoholic drink with your lunch. If here the first choice would be beer, followed by wine, in Japan people sometimes choose sake. Not sure if it would be a first choice but still.
Of course, you don’t want a big sake bottle. And again, it’s on the train, so you can’t mess with pouring sake into a glass. Enen on a super comfortable Japanese shinkansen (a bullet train) you risk having half of the sake splashing all over the place.
With all that in mind, you choose your tasty bento and head to a vending machine or a stand selling small sealed sake cups (kappu), usually 180ml but sometimes as big as 200ml. A fair share of them tend to be futsushu but you can find anything from junmai and honjozo to junmai daiginjo and from nigori to genshu nama if you look hard enough. And your lunch is sorted!
A small cups invasion
Alas outside Japan you won’t find that huge variety of single-serving sake. Definitely not at a train station. But things are getting better. Ozeki One Cup I am going to talk about below was probably a pioneer as well as Kikusui Funaguchi. But since then I have seen more and more small cute one cups here in London.
The idea of this type of sake is that you don’t need anything extra to enjoy the drink. They are usually bottled in 180ml jars which look like cups. You open the lid and use it as a glass. Like some small wine cups sold in supermarkets.
A great thing about a small factor or single-serving sake is that it’s a very good opportunity to try different types of sake without breaking the budget and worrying about finishing a bottle if you are like me drink sensibly (what I am sure you are!) Especially, if you are just starting your sake journey and would like to understand the differences between styles and types of sake.
So with that in mind, I decided to review a few single-serving sake to make your choice a bit easier.
Ozeki One Cup Futsushu
And I will start with a pioneer of this format, Ozeki One Cup, an iconic brand, which started in 1964, the year of Tokyo Olympics and the start of shinkansen (a bullet train) operations. It was a peak period of sake sales in Japan and a standard sake bottle was a 1.8L isshobin. So if you just wanted to have sake it on a train or at a picnic you were out of luck.
Ozeki started selling One Cup first at Tokyo Station spreading across the country. The emergence of vending machines in 1967 fueled the sales even more. And by the way, Ozeki is a big player in the sake industry. The company was established in 1711 and the name means a top rank in sumo wrestling. Though it might be just a surname.
Another cool thing about Ozeki One Cup is that its design was developed by two university professors this label is still used today.
Ozeki is one of the largest sake producers in Japan located in the famous Nada region, famous for its hard water resulting in robust and tasty sake. The company brews sake not only in Japan but also in the US. You have probably seen Ozeki Dry Junmai sake in some supermarkets and shops in the UK and the US.
So is Ozeki One Cup good, given that’s futsushu? Yes, it is actually a very enjoyable sake for the price. You won’t find the elegance of ginjo aroma or complexity of junmai sake here. Ozeki One Cup is a simple and fresh sake with a very mild aroma, where you might notice some ricey and earthy notes with a tiny wee of fruitiness. It’s slightly sweet with a bit of acidity and marmelady undertones, a bit of plum and umami.
It’s a great casual sake to have with your meal or at a picnic. It will go great with any comfort food like fried chicken, fish and chips, burger or even curry.
Currently, Ozeki is selling One Cup Rainbow Edition, which is very cool. So the link below is to that version. It’s the same sake but a bit different label. Check it out!
Where to buy
£29.99 (5 x 180ml)
Kikusui Funaguchi Nama Genshu Honjozo
Once upon a time, nama or namazake, which is freshly pressed unpasteurised sake, was only available at sake breweries. Without pasteurisation, namazake is very unstable and delicate. Take it on a few days journey from Nada to Tokyo and leave it at a shop for another few days and it might go off. So it was until the emergence of refrigerators, refrigerating trucks and other equipment which help keep nama fresh. But even now you might easily come across not so fresh namazake.
But not everyone could visit a brewery to drink a freshly brewed namazake. Especially if your favourite brewery was in a different part of the country. So nama sake was a kind of a niche drink which only locals could enjoy for hundreds of years. When the sales of sake were at their historic peak in the 1970s, Kikusui brewery from Niigata prefecture saw an opportunity there.
They decided to bring namazake into the masses. Unpasteurised sake has three main enemies: air, heat and light. Expose it to any of them and it will spoil the sake. So the brewery came up with a very clever solution for its time: an aluminium can. The aluminium protects the namazake from the light while filling the can to the brim with 200 ml of sake instead of the usual 180 ml reduced the amount of air and oxidation.
With a fridge at most Japanese homes at that time, the heat was not a big problem. The brewery also used undiluted sake with ABV of 19%, which made it even more stable. Kikusui launched Funaguchi Nama in 1972 and it became an instant hit. It also started a nama sake boom, which is still going on.
Another great thing about Funaguchi Nama is that it ages pretty well. Leave it in a fridge for a year and its profile will change. The colour will change to amber and the taste will become more mellow and deeper with a nice velvety texture.
Funaguchi Nama is medium sweet sake with a fruity aroma and a clean finish. It’s a bit stronger than your usual sake but it makes it perfect to have on the rocks. It’s great chilled as well. The sake is amazing with savoury spicy food like Korean fried chicken, burritos or Thai curry. It’s also very good with cheese if you would like to have it on its own but still want to eat something.
Where to buy
£24.99 (3 x 200ml)
Kizakura Tsu no Honjozo
Ozeki One Cup and Kikusui Funaguchi are two iconic single-serving sake and have been available in the UK for some time. But I have noticed a few new entries in the category in a recent couple of years from also very reputable le breweries. One of them, Kizakura, from the Fushimi district in Kyoto has actually two offerings. First is also futsushu like Ozeki One Cup with a clever Kizakura Kappa Cup 200 name and a very cute label.
Kuppa Cup is a wordplay of cup and kappa, an amphibious spirit or creature from Japanese folklore. While traditionally kappa usually looks like a greenish human-like being with webbed hands and feet, a turtle-like shell on the back and a beaky nose. However, the kappa on Kizakura sake reminded me more of a European mermaid. The number 200 stands for the volume, which is again higher than 180 ml in traditional “one cups”. The sake is nice and crisp, a better type of futsushu sake, similar to Ozeki One Cup.
However, it’s the second one cuppa I especially liked: Kizakura Tsu no Honjozo. It’s a honjozo sake like Kikusui Funaguchi but with a twist.
It’s not just ordinary honjozo but honjozo blended with aged ginjo sake. As a result, the sake has a lot of depth and complexity in aroma and taste.
The sake is not overly aromatic but has pleasant green apple, honey and ricey notes. Kizakura Tsu no Honjozo is off-dry sake with a clean taste, smooth texture and higher than usual acidity. It’s all makes Tsu no Honjozo a very good food friendly sake.
Overall, it’s a very smooth and balanced sake that can be paired with many Japanese, Asian, Western and other dishes. I had it with tsukune and it was delicious. The brewery recommends drinking it warm but I didn’t have a chance to do it. It’s just 180 ml, so next time.
I think ‘tsu’ in this case means ‘commute’. So it’s honjozo for commuters! Another thing I really liked about Kizakura Tsu no Honjozo is the bottle. It’s shaped like an ancient Japanese clay sake vessel you can see sometimes on old paintings or drawings from Edo period and even earlier. It looks stylish and cool.
Where to buy
Red Fuji Shirayuki Akafuji Junmai Ginjo
Red Fuji is a famous woodblock print by Hokusai. “Fine Wind, Clear Morning” as it’s properly called is considered as “one of the simplest and at the same time one of the most outstanding of all Japanese prints”. The print is more revered in Japan than the Great Wave, his best-known painting in the West. The painting is a part of Hokusai’s famous “36 View of Mt Fuji” and depicts Mount Fuji under extremely rare weather conditions during the sunrise from late summer to early autumn.
Mount Fuji is the symbol of Konishi Brewing Company, which started making sake in 1550, more than 470 years ago. The brewery is famous for its Shirayuki brand, which means Snow White referring to the snow-capped Mount Fuji.
What makes Shirayuki Akafuji Red Fuji quite unique is that it is a junmai ginjo sake. Making single-serving super-premium sake is less common. Most “one cups” are either futsushu or junmai or honjozo. But here you’ve got an opportunity to try junmai ginjo without buying a whole bottle. It’s especially cool if you are still getting into sake.
It’s interesting that the Red Fuji looks more like a takeaway coffee cup than an alcoholic drink. While Ozeki and Kizakura cups are made of glass and Kikusui Funaguchi of aluminium, Red Fuji is served in a paper cup. So it’s light and doesn’t let damaging for sake sunlight in.
Shirayuki Akafuji Red Fuji is mildly aromatic sake with classic ginjo melon and banana aroma with some fresh apple and pear notes and a bit of pleasant yeastiness. The taste is fruity, slightly sweet and tangy, with plum, raisins and grapefruit flavours, a nice boozy kick and a quick and dry finish. The sake is very refreshing when served chilled but you can try it warm as its taste becomes mellow and heartwarming.
In terms of food pairing, I had it with a burger and it was delicious! Tengu Sake also recommends BBQ, mature cheeses, sweet & sticky sauces, curries, stews and steak, while the brewery’s page also mentions dim sum and creamy dishes. So it’s very versatile sake.
Where to buy
Gekkeikan The Shot Daiginjo
The last single-serving sake on my list is Gekkeikan The Shot Daiginjo. Gekkeikan is one of the largest and best-known sake producers in Japan located in the famous Fushimi area in Kyoto. While Nada in Hyogo prefecture is known for its hard water perfect for brewing robust and potent sake, Fushimi is eponymous for soft water producing gentle and elegant sake.
Gekkeikan is a very old company founded in 1637. However, for many years they were a small insignificant brewery. Everything changed in the Meiji period, when Tsunekichi Okura, the 11th generation scion of the family became president in 1886 at the age of 13.
He turned the struggling sake brewery into a flagship of the Japanese sake industry. Gekkeikan was the first sake producer who recognised the importance of the expanding railway network and released the first small sake bottle with a drinking cup that was sold from 1911 at train stations.
There are two single-serving Gekkeikan sake brands sold in the UK. The first is Gekkeikan with Ochoko Cup, a 180ml bottle of daiginjo or junmai sake with a cup made in a form of ochoko, a sake cup. In some markets, it’s got the name Cap Ace. Some Japanese airlines serve it on their planes. It’s very stylish and you can drink sake from a cute little cup.
The other brand’s name is The Shot and it’s also available in two varieties, honjozo and dry daiginjo. The Shot is purposely designed not as a cup but more like a small bottle similar to mini bottles with whiskey, gin etc. For me, it looks a bit like a bottle of cold brew coffee though. So you unscrew the cap and drink sake directly from the bottle. It looks more like a party drink than a picnic.
Gekkeikan The Shot Daiginjo has a delicate fruity aroma with sweet apple, apricot, plum and a bit of minerality. It’s a dry sake with citrusy notes, creamy texture and light and easy to drink taste. Alcohol is prominent but not unpleasantly. The Shot has a long finish with a bit of bitterness at the end.
It’s a versatile sake for food pairing and will go well with oily foods like karaage or sashimi, fish, risotto, or roasted vegetables. It tastes better slightly chilled but opens up at room temperature.
Where to buy
…and it’s noty all
The list above is my personal choice of single-serving sake. I tried to do all styles and grades. However, some sake didn’t make it. Mio Sparkling sake is not on the list but it’s available in Sainsbury’s and a nice fizzy sweet sake to enjoy super chilled on a hot day. Sainsbury’s also sell Sawanotsuru futsushu 180ml sake. It’s pleasant and enjoyable. I think it’s the same sake available in Waitrose under Sawanotsuru Delux brand. There are a few sake which are out of stock at the moment so I didn’t have a chance to taste them.
Another sake related drink, umeshu you can also buy in small cups. I saw a few in Japan Centre and other shops. So if you would like to have something sweet but refreshing, it’s a good option. You can either drink it from a cup or use it in a cocktail.
It’s picnic season. Try this time something new. Instead of beer or wine, slip a couple of single-serving sake in your picnic basket and enjoy them in the fresh air with nice food or barbeque.