Of the 300+ sakes to taste at the annual Joy of Sake in New York, the one pictured above was my favorite. How did I narrow it down?
I’ll tell you what. It was not by trying over 300 sakes.
This was my third time at JOS, and each time I’ve gone with three special friends: a brewer who makes a beer/sake hybrid, a sake expert who blogs on BostonSake.com, and a sommelier. Each one brings their own perspective to educate my sake palate. And as a beer judge myself I bring my own bag of biases. Here is what I’ve learned: The tables of Daiginjo A, the most expensive, made with the most highly polished rice, and the most elegant- are lost on me after two tastes. They’re graceful and restrained- but to my brutal, rustic palate- they border on blank. The next two grades made with less polish percentage are often too subtle or too sweet for me. Deliver me to the Yamahai tables please!
I think it makes sense that a beer geek would love this type of expressive sake. It’s more time consuming to make, and the patience and art of the brewer’s touch result in a finish that runs the range of lychee and spice to earthy and the ultimate- you have to see Will Meyers say this as his ecstatic eyes roll to the back of his head- mushroom bomb.
Another reason that those luscious shy Daiginjos are lost on me at JOS is that we always start with pre-JOS beers. New York has a gazillion craft beer destinations- Alewife, Eataly, Pony Bar, Jimmy’s 43, Spuyten Duyvil, and Fette Sau just to name a few that I adore. But Blind Tiger is like a friendly homecoming to my neighborhood bar even though I’ve never lived near it. That’s its magic. And that’s where we started- with a super Peekskill IPA. Nothing like bustin’ your palate right out of the gate.
If you’ve been to a beer festival, you know the drill: wait in line for a two ounce pour; repeat. And if it’s in the US, you’re expected to drink the wonderful beer from a ridiculous plastic cup. JOS is civilized. You can bring your own glass (as we always do, although they do provide a tiny plastic thimble if you forget) and serve yourself as much as you want out of tiny droppers that sit in ceramic cups in front of each bottle. No lines. Actually there were lines- but they were all for the food. Fifteen restaurants served incredible one-bite nibbles from tables at the edges of the room. Ramen Burger, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Sakamai, Brushstroke- all worth waiting for. The program is well organized and includes a map of brewing regions, a brief explanation of rice polishing and sake grades, and a thorough list of sakes available to taste.
Two floors of the Altman Building are filled with tables of sake running along each side. They are divided generally by type: Daiginjo A (40% or less polishing ratio), Daiginjo B (40-50% or less), Ginjo (60% or less), and Junmai (70% or less). Polishing ratio refers to the percentage of rice kernel left after buffing. Some of the tables are organized by production method- hence my Yamahai obsession, acted out below in my mother’s hip dress from 1968. Yes those are shorts under there, and boots. My attempt at groovy.
Afterwards the Japan-love continued to Sakamai, where I was introduced to a new (to me) delicious IPA called Ozeno Yukidoke from Japanese brewery Ginko Kura. We were all so keen on it that even when Todd’s super-connection offered us sips from a $1K bottle of sake, we were grateful but we couldn’t wait to get more of the Ozeno! Plus check out the glass- very nice to hold and allows the floral aroma to time-lapse release all the way to the finish.
And we ate more. Because who can resist egg-on-egg-on-egg? Brine and earth meet in a slippery brackish elixir with flavor that somehow is just getting started when you swallow. We sat around the table breathing through our noses to continue tasting it- can you picture that odd image? Better to see the dish itself:
We didn’t stop there. Izakaya Riki! Where we started to plan next year’s JOS adventure.