What is the oldest sake brewery? It’s a good question and I spent a good amount of time digging around to find it out. I have to admit, it is a quite difficult task to accomplish without knowing Japanese, so I had to rely solely on English-language sources. Some of them mentioned the Imanishi Shuzo brewery located in Nara, one of Japan’s religious centres and the imperial capital of the country in the 8th century. But, the brewery’s own website put its foundation date to 1660.
Most of the sources, however, named Sudo Honke from Ibaraki Prefecture north of Tokyo as the oldest sake brewery. It was founded in 1141 and is currently run by the 55th generation of the Sudo family. That’s 877 years of sake brewing for you! It would be great to try the sake, made there while sipping it under a hanging sugidama and thinking about all the years behind the brewing process.
Well, while I’m waiting for that dream to come true, I’ve managed to buy sake from a brewery, which is a bit younger but still founded 478 years ago in 1540, the Yoshinogawa Brewery in Niigata. Almost a half millennia is still good enough for me. The Niigata Prefecture is famous for having one of the best water for sake brewing. The prefecture is located in the North of the main island of Japan and due to the cold climate, it experiences a lot of snow in the winter. Melted snow produces nice soft water, making it perfect for smooth and delicate sake.
This cold weather has another advantage. Sake is normally brewed in winter, after the rice is harvested, and the cold environment makes it easier to control the fermentation process, which sometimes even requires a stopwatch to make sure that the rice is not over-fermented. Interestingly, the brewery still uses some old manual techniques, which allow them to fine-tune the brewing process. For example, the rice is kept in shallow individual wooden boxes during the fermentation process allowing the better temperature control. The brewery’s website has a great video showing the sake making process. Just watch it!
I bought a small bottle of Yoshi-no-gawa Dai-ginjo (as it’s spelt on the bottle) sake at the Japan Centre during the Niigata Fair in February and I have to say, that the old techniques pay off. This sake is the brewery’s flagship product and it’s excellent. It comes in a nice black cardboard box with golden and red writing, and there is a small note about the brewery inside the box. The sake is quite expensive, around £20 for a 180ml bottle, which makes the price for a standard 720ml bottle around £60, but it’s worth it.
Yoshinogawa Daiginjo has some distilled alcohol added, which helps to control the taste better and it shows. The sake’s aroma is very pleasant and delicate, which reminded my wife of tea roses. However, the smell of alcohol seemed a bit stronger than in the junmai sake I have tried in the past. The taste is rich, smooth, very balanced and complex at the same time. It took me a while to figure out how to describe it. I personally could taste raisins, dark chocolate and even a bit of lemon zest.
The brewery mentions hints of strawberry, musk, ginger and herbs on the product page of its website. According to the notes, the sake has a strong ‘ginjo-ka’ character. Ginjō-ka (吟醸香) means the fruity aroma that is typical for ginjo and daiginjo sake made from highly polished rice that is slowly fermented at low temperatures. It is interesting that the brewery’s notes state that Yoshinogawa Daiginjo sake is kept in a tank at -5 degrees for 3 years prior to bottling because this enhances the delicate fragrant character of the sake, which is definitely true. Finally, the sake gives you a nice sweetness on the finish.
It was my first proper introduction into non-junmai sake. Before I only had tried it occasionally at sake tasting events but all the sake I drank properly were junmai. The difference for me is the complexity of the taste and aroma. Daiginjo tastes fruitier and sweeter compared to junmai daiginjo. It’s a nice sake to drink on its own but it would be well paired with some light delicate food. I really enjoyed Yoshinogawa Daiginjo and I’m looking forward to trying more sake from Niigata. I will probably order some junmai sake from the Yoshinogawa brewery to compare and report my findings in a due course.
One thing I would like to comment before finishing this post is the conventions of naming sake. Generally, sake with added alcohol and milling ratio at least 70% is called honjozo. However, if the milling ratio is at least 60% or 50%, it’s simply called ginjo or daiginjo respectively. Junmai sake is currently trending up both in Japan and abroad. People consider it (and rightly so) to be more natural. However, it doesn’t mean that normal ginjo and daiginjo sake should be ignored. They give you a more complex taste and aroma, and a very nice finish. So if you have never drunk a non-junmai ginjo or daiginjo sake, give it a try! You will definitely enjoy it.