My Conversation with John Gauntner
Sake of the Month, April, 2011: Ama no To–Heaven’s Door
Steve here: John! What is your sake recommendation this month?
John: For April, I suggest that you try Ama no To, from Akita Prefecture, snow country in the far north of Honshu Island.
This sake takes its name from an ancient poem about how the world began. It is a fascinating brew from a fascinating kura, with a fascinating toji (master brewer). Master brewer, chef, photographer, rice farmer, published author, and all around interesting guy, Yasuichi Moriya, is certainly well rounded. And his sake rocks, to boot. On top of that, they are adamant about using only local rice. Like, really local rice– all of the rice they use is grown in fields that can be seen from the roof of their brewery.
This tokubetsu junmai is laced with fig and butter, with a slightly rich and sweet touch to the flavor that seems perfectly in place. A drier and clean finish ties it all together. Very enjoyable with salty grilled salmon, or bacon-garnished cream pasta.
Steve: As part of our on-going sake education, please tell us about the different ways of pressing sake.
John: After a 20-day to 35-day fermentation, a tank of sake looks like a thin white milky slurry, but tastes and smells just wonderful. The final big step is to pass that mash through a mesh to remove the rice solids. Most English texts call this step “pressing” since there is a charcoal filtration step later. Sake can be pressed by machine, and 99% of all sake is done this way. The machines do a fine job. However, it can also be pressed by putting the mash into long cotton bags and laying those bags in a deep wooden box, then cranking the lid into that box to squeeze the sake out and leave the lees in the bags. This is more exquisite, lively and aromatic. And more expensive.
It can also be drip-pressed, with the aforementioned bags being suspended allowing the sake inside to drip out, with no pressure applied. This is as extravagant as it gets. Known as “shizuku” sake, it is aromatic, fine-grained and refined. And expensive!
Steve: Remember, the sake that John reviews are available in the U.S.
John Gauntner is one of the world’s most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John’s website at http://www.sake-world.com.