There’s a refined elegance in each of the sakes from Akashi-Tai. It speaks to the quality of the rice, the pristine water with which the grains are brewed and grown, and master brewer (aka toji) Kimio Yonezawa’s deep respect for a centuries-old tradition, as well as his belief in the beauty of transformation over time.
“There is an art and science to something rare,” says Yonezawa during a recent tasting of three of the brewery’s sakes, along with Miho Komatsu, sake sommelier and brand ambassador, and Sarah Tracey, a sommelier and host of the virtual event. Yonezawa’s family settled in Akashi, on the banks of the Osaka Bay, in the Hyogo prefecture (regarded as the sake capital of the world) in 1856. (The brand’s label bears the sea bream, a native fish of the area.) They initially produced soy sauce and worked as rice brokers before turning to the distilling business, with shochu, in 1917. Flash-forward to 1999, and Yonezawa took over the brewery. He’s been at the helm ever since, leading the brewery in producing its highly regarded small-batch, artisan sakes, largely defined by his passion for retaining the integrity of the rice and innovation. “He changes the flavor and taste based on what he likes,” says Komatsu. “His range today is specialized and unique.”
The brand’s six premium-grade sakes are brewed from two types of locally produced rice, Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku, using the same pure, fresh spring water in which the grains are cultivated to achieve cohesion from land to barrels (the drinks are stored in tanks with cedar lids) to bottle. In addition to rice and water, sake is produced with rice koji (for fermentation) and yeast; the grains are polished to remove fat and proteins, leaving starch—crucial in the final expression of the sake. (For example, the honjozo genshu has less polishing, resulting in an earthier, savory taste, while the daiginjo genshu has more polishing, achieving a more fruit-forward flavor.)
Much like wine, the rice is affected by the weather (for example, if the temperature is too high, it can lead to cracks in the rice, so soaking and steaming is necessary to balance it) and the timing of the harvest (earlier or later) impacts the final taste. The three sakes below should be served cold, in a wine glass, or traditional masu (wooden cups) or ochobok (small cups). So pour yourself a sip and savor these tasting notes.
TOKUBETSU HONJOZO GENSHU
This dry sake features Gohyakumangoku rice and is undiluted, meaning no water is added for a stronger, more full-bodied aesthetic. (Its ABV is 19% and its milling rate is 60%, meaning it is less-polished.) It has a nose of steamed rice and tart lemon that gives way to a clean, lingering mouthfeel. A pairing note? Grilled meat. And while for Komatsu it’s generally taboo to use sake in a cocktail, this particular sip can be used as a base for a sake-tini or a mojito. ($16)
This beautiful Yamadanishiki sake has a floral nose with a taste that’s reminiscent of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc—though its palate is much smoother and creamier. While still a dry expression, a welcome hint of sweetness carries through it. The milling rate is much higher than the honjozo (38%), with an ABV of 17%. A tip from Yonezawa? Instead of vinegar, pour this elegant sake on oysters to bring out their taste. ($49)
JUNMAI DAIGINJO GENSHU
Called the grand cru of the Akashi-Tai sakes, this beauty has a cloudier appearance and has a long brewing process that lends to its grace; it’s subtle, with floral, lemon, and orange elements that dance lightly on the palate. Try it with the brand’s signature fish (sea bream), fresh shellfish, or zippy tuna tartare. Its milling rate is 38% (meaning 62% of the original grain has been removed) and its ABV is 16%. ($52)