Aging & Rice Varieties in Sparkling Sake

The sparkling sake category is like a box of chocolates, full of delicious caramel filled gooey ones and some unfortunate duds, left in the box until the very end. Maybe they’re orange liqueur filled or perhaps it’s the marzipan (which I love by the way) you choose to leave to the very end. Sparkling sake can also be delicious, full of brightness and life and there are…well, some are just tasty or maybe they’re too experimental. 

The Sparkling Sake Association of Japan (Awazake Association) is a group of sake producers who have joined forces to bring cohesion and awareness to this dynamic but confusing category. The Awazake Association ( consists of 15 very forward thinking sake brewers and at the helm of this group is Noriyoshi Nagai, the 6th generation president of Nagai brewery in Gunma and the founding president of the association. He’s been experimenting for years on making traditional method (Champagne method) sparkling sake, with secondary fermentation in bottle, hand riddling and bottling with a cork. Like any innovator, he says “I failed 700 times before we got it right”. 


We hosted Nagai san and Matsumi san (his export director) in Vancouver for a few days in April where we got to taste the Mizubasho Pure, Nagai brewery’s traditional method sparkling sake made with Yamadanishiki rice. They also make a sparkling sake from Yukihotaka rice (a regionalized variety of Koshihikari rice), which we tasted alongside the Pure. 

In the lineup, we had three sparkling sakes: 1) Mizubasho Pure from the current BY (brew year) 2) Mizubasho Pure from 3 years ago (thanks to Roger Maniwa for sharing!) and 3) Mizubasho Yukihotaka (current). 

Here’s how they were showing:

  1. Mizubasho Pure (current): fresh notes of melon, crisp apples, slightly yeasty and rice-y. Soft but persistent bubbles with good texture on the palate. Very delicate and clean. 
  2. Mizubasho Pure (3 years old): some aged notes on the nose, caramel and oxidation. Less bubbles, drier on the palate and clean finish. Layered and complex. 
  3. Mizubasho Yukihotaka (current): bigger nose, tree fruits and melons. Bigger on the palate with more energy and density. 

*all three are polished to the same percentage and brewed in the same way. 

It’s important to note that the Mizubasho Pure base sake has changed over the years. The sake from 3 years ago used to be made to +3 SMV (sake meter value) while the current Pure is at around -5 SMV. The objective now is to make a more delicate, softer sparkling sake. Personally, I think the drier, aged version could be more interesting for food pairings while the current style is more finessed and is delicious on it’s own or paired with delicate dishes like raw oysters, white seafood or Chawanmushi. The aged Pure would be interesting to try with more intense fish like Aji or dishes seasoned with dashi. 

The Yukihotaka sparkling is made from a localized version of Koshihikari, a very famous eating rice. This rice used to be only available for the Emperor and if you’re in Kawaba village (where Nagai brewery is located) so it’s as fancy as it gets. Nagai san decided he wanted to show the expression of this highly regionalized rice because it’s only available in his village (or the Emperor’s kitchen). It’s the rice he’s chosen to show terroir, a sense of place. We found this sake brighter, with more energy and a richer mouthfeel. Yamadanishiki is easier to polish, with a big shinpaku (starch heart) whereas the Yukihotaka has no shinpaku. This means that there’s more fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins left in the rice when the brewer is using Yukihotaka or any table rice. What you get as a result is more flavour and potentially complexity. 

What we’re going to keep seeing for a while most likely is a large range of styles and continued experimentation in the sparkling sake category. The good news is that they’re getting better and better with more knowledge and science, which can only mean good things for everyone. 

Sawaya Matsumoto – Terroir in a Bottle

Sawaya Matsumoto was established in 1791 in the historic Fushimi ward in Kyoto. Hidehiko Matsumoto, the current Toji is a young visionary with a passion for showing what he can express with the simplicity of ingredients: rice, water and koji. 

His philosophy is that the true value of sake is in the rice and where it’s grown, terroir. 

In the last 3 years, Hidehiko has taken many trips to rice farms all over Japan as well as his favourite wine regions such as Burgundy and Champagne, visiting domaines and grower Champagne producers. In visiting these places he realized that the ingredients and where they come from are equally important in wine and sake; how, who and where the rice and grapes are grown have a significant impact on the finished product. 

Having worked with many rice varieties such as Yamadanishiki, Gokyakumangoku and Omachi from different farmers and terroirs, he has come to the conclusion that this is true for all varieties. 

With this understanding in mind, he felt at odds with the fact that sake isn’t yet presented in this way. This led him to start the “Shuhari” 守破離 brand within the Matsumoto lineup. 

In 2016, the brand “Shuhari”, which means to protect the past by breaking rules and boundaries, was created to express the terroir and uniqueness of the rice and growers he works with. 

The brewery is working with rice farmers in Hyogo’s top Yamadanishiki sites in the Tojo area to learn rice growing and what makes this region special. Each plot and subplot are looked at separately to try to understand each of the unique terroirs and what they offer to the final sake. The ID series is a project that showcases single plot farms within the Tojo region in Okamoto village. 

This year’s offerings are ID series 1314, 39-1 and 566 and each of the numbers correspond to the address of each of the rice plots. The labels were designed exclusively for this project by Paris based artist Emilie Sarnel.




Sake & Wine Terroir

What is sake and wine terroir? Recaredo Cava, Cellar Credo and Sawaya Matsumoto’s ID series were shown alongside at Pidgin on September 26th to highlight the concept of terroir in all forms. 

Recaredo produces biodynamic, grand cru Cava, which express a sense of place and individualism in a category that has been dominated by bigger brands and consistency. The grand cru Serral Del Vell, for example, produces a beautifully balanced, refined and striking wine that has tremendous aging potential. Biodynamic farming practices allow for the personality of the fruit to come through, retaining natural energy in the finished wine. 

These efforts were recognized officially when Spain recently approved 12 Cava grape growing sites in a new top-level classification with the goal of promoting single-vineyard wines. 

Cellar Credo, run by the same team as Recaredo, is a biodynamic winery who aims to give Xarello a stage and show its individuality. A grape that was often seen as “lesser”, the humble Xarello offers texture, an unique savoury and complex profile that is intimately special to this variety and region. The Catalan energy truly shines through in all the wines.  

Finally, Sawaya Matsumoto is a sake brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto with a long history of protecting tradition and breaking barriers. Each of the three ID Series is made with rice from different plots of farms in the same village. These are the sake world’s answer to single-vineyard wines. 

All made with Yamadanishiki from Tojo village in Hyogo prefecture and in the same method, each cuvée expresses the uniqueness of each plot (1314-1, 39-1 and 566). For example, the 39-1 at this time has the most acidity and juiciness. They will continue to evolve over time and show it’s own character. 

For many generations, sake brewers also aimed for consistency and to be able to reproduce the same sake and style year after year. Now, the next generation of brewers are looking to express themselves through their sake. Individualism and expression of the uniqueness of the terroir has become a key theme in some of the best producers of the world, whether we are speaking of Cava, wine or sake. 

Understanding Natural Sake – Kimoto and Yamahai

The days are shorter, the air a little lighter and my hair feels a little less frizzy. As we ease ourselves into fall and the new school season, let’s get a little sake nerdy and this theme is as nerdy as it gets…

Natural wine has been in the limelight for the last few years and it’s no longer just for hippies or hipsters. It’s a combination of a philosophy, a way of life, a way to declare our independence from the main stream. Whatever you think about natural, biodynamic, organic or sustainable wines (all very different by the way), our awakened interest in knowing where our wine comes from and how it’s made is hard to argue in its merits. It promotes responsibility to the earth and respecting the natural cycle of things.

With that being said, is there natural sake? And what makes it natural? It’s a popular conversation topic and controversial at times but there are some recurring themes to think about.

One element the naturalist sake brewers are talking about is the difference between sakes made in the sokujo starter method, versus ones made with kimoto and yamahai starter methods. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to combine these two into the same camp, as yamahai is a variation of the kimoto method.

A traditional style that developed in the 1600s, Kimoto sakes are made with a yeast starter that don’t have lactic acid added. With most modern sakes (i.e. sokujo), lactic acid is mixed into the starter and the pH drops, which is a safe environment to add sake yeast. Other weird stuff doesn’t get into the mix, making sure that the rest of the fermentation goes smoothly. Before brewers realized all of this and lactic acid was a thing of mystic powers, lactic bacteria in the air had to create lactic acid naturally in the yeast starter. This takes time and in unlucky instances, things went sideways in the mash that messed things up.

This is pretty risky as you can imagine but cold temperatures keep wild yeasts, bacteria and other microorganisms not good for sake brewing in check. This is why kimoto sakes are particularly famous in chilly places like Akita. Cold temperatures mean cleaner, more controlled fermentations, which equals clean sake.

Kimoto also utilizes less water because as wild yeasts and bacteria love water, limiting the amount makes it safer and cleaner. But this again means a harder consistency…tough times for brewers!


So what do these sakes taste like? Kimoto sakes can be clean as a whistle, aromatic and pretty or downright funky. It all depends on what the brewery is trying to do with this method. It’s not the how but the intention that dictates what we get as a final result.

There are plenty of yamahai and kimoto sakes made in either style but yamahai sakes tend to be more funky, earthy and full of umami. This is because most people expect yamahai sakes to be this way. There is an expectation that brewers try to keep in mind when calling things different names so that consumers aren’t surprised when they drink the sake. These funky sakes are often aged for a year or two, so that the earthy notes come through. There’s a pretty big range of sakes in this category to try in the market so make sure you try a few.

Sakes to try:

Taiheizan Kimoto: Made by Kodama Shuzo, an Akita producer who has been championing Kimoto sakes for a long time. The “Akita Kimoto Method” was developed, nurtured and passed down by the brewers at Kodama brewery. Deep umami notes with signature kimoto acidity and complexity.

Taiheizan Kimoto

Tengumai Yamahai: Brewed in Ishikawa on the west coast of Japan, famous for its amazing seafood and kaiseki (the original tasting menu). Local Gohyakumangoku rice, brewed in the Yamahai method and aged for two years in neutral barrel. Lots of savoury, nutty notes with tons of acidity.

Tengumai Yamahai Jikomi Junmai


Amabuki Kimoto Omachi: A brewery in Kyushu who specializes in using flower yeasts to brew sake. This one is made with Rhododendron yeast and in the kimoto method. Very clean, lots of acidity and a gorgeous mouthfeel, which I assume the Omachi rice has a part in creating. A beautiful example of a refined, ginjo style kimoto.


Let’s talk about…Kimoto

There are positives to cold, snowy weather. Cute down jackets and ear muffs, making snow angels and snowmen and of course, eating ice cream in the hot tub.

In the sake world, cold, snowy weather also means that you have a natural environment suitable for creating certain types of sake. By utilizing the low temperatures, brewers were able to control fermentation so that bad stuff didn’t happen. As a result, they became famous for their tasty sake that didn’t have bacterial contamination and spoilage. These things are not good for sake, in case that wasn’t clear.

In warm climates on the other hand, brewing techniques developed that allowed for clean fermentation despite the challenges that a hotter environment bring. Using warmer temperatures for shorter amounts of time when making the yeast starter created less risk and a cleaner sake.

Many regions within Japan are fondly known as “Yuki Guni”, which translates to Snow Country. These are places where there are lots of snow (duh), usually the warm, fluffy kind, and the locals have adapted to this landscape. In the case of Akita, where Taiheizan is located, many local breweries have taken this backdrop and welcomed it with open arms. Akita style Kimoto sakes were born out of this climate.

A traditional style that developed in the 1600s, Kimoto sakes are made with a yeast starter that don’t have lactic acid added. With most modern sakes, lactic acid is mixed into the starter and the pH drops, which is a safe environment to add sake yeast. Other weird stuff doesn’t get into the mix, making sure that the rest of the fermentation goes smoothly. Before brewers realized all of this and lactic acid was a thing of mystic powers, lactic bacteria in the air had to create lactic acid naturally in the yeast starter. This takes time and in unlucky instances, stuff happened in the mash that messed things up.

Cold snowy weather to the rescue! In places like Akita where the winters are pretty solidly cold, low temperatures keeps a lot of the wild bacterias and yeasts in check, even for Kimoto sakes. The result in a clean fermentation and you get sake. Ta-da.

Akita style Kimoto is also a little different from other Kimoto methods and Taiheizan Brewery was instrumental in spreading these techniques. Kodama san, the brewery president, as well as the Akita Prefectural Sake Association president, tells me proudly that his forefathers taught many brewers in his region.

A key difference in Akita style Kimoto is that while Kimoto yeast starters often used smaller wooden vats called hangiri to physically mash the rice with wooden poles, Akita style puts everything into one place. Because all the ingredients are in the tank at once, the rice soaks up all the water, making the mash very hard. No wooden pole is going to be able to get through it so electric “drills” are used instead.

Kimoto also uses less water because wild organisms love water so limiting the amount makes it safer and cleaner. But this again means a harder consistency…tough times for brewers!

So what do these taste like? Kimoto sakes can be clean as a whistle, aromatic and pretty or downright funky. It all depends on what the brewery is trying to do with this method. It’s not the how but the intention that dictates what we get as a final result.

So next time you pick up a bottle of Kimoto sake, make sure you take the time to think about how much work and effort went into the bottle. Or better yet, just drink it and have a good time.

What About Sparkling Sake?


My inclination to be sassy makes me want to say “What about sparkling sake?” when someone asks me this question.

Of course, I only say it in my head so I don’t become a social recluse but it comes from my frustration with the category, where the sakes can be fresh and beautiful, made with integrity, or strange and disjointed.

All too often, sparkling sake seems too much like a gimmick, where someone pondering the age old issue of “how do we get young people to drink sake?” came out of it the other end with an answer for a pop-drinking, sparkling water loving generation and culture that they weren’t part of. There’s also the notion that the export market will like sparkling sake and use it as a gateway to more serious sake. Not trying to be a Debbie-Downer. I promise.

Quite simply, when a consumer picks up a bottle of sparkling sake, it’s a game of chance.

To counter this perception and lack of consensus in the marketplace, the Japan Awasake Association was formed, who’s mission is to share knowledge and information between brewers making sparkling sake to improve quality and to set a standard for the category. The aim is to place sparkling sake amongst the top sparkling beverages of the world and promote it’s versatility in the marketplace. The association has also created a set of standards that producers must follow in order for the sparkling sake to be certified “Awasake” by the association.

**“Awa” means bubbles, so Awasake is in reference to sparkling sake.**

Awasake designation (from

There are 6 requirements that must be met for a sparkling sake to be designated as a Awasake by the association:

1) The only allowable ingredients are rice, rice koji, water.

2) Awa sake must only use domestic rice and must be classified as above “grade 3” quality by agricultural testing. (this is done by the agricultural boards)

3) The bubbles must be from natural carbonation (traditional method)

4) Visually, the sake should be clear and the bubbles after the sake is poured into a glass should be consistent and persistent.

5) The alcohol must be over 10% abv

6) The pressure when the sake is at 20 degrees celsius should be 2.5 bars.

Additionally, the quality should remain consistent for 3 months at room temperature. It must also be pasteurized.

These sakes will have official Awasake stickers on the bottles, making it easier for identification.

I think this standardization is a great step in the right direction for the sparking sake category because it gives clarity to a consumer as to what goes into a certified Awasake. However, I also think there are sparkling sakes that will never be certified Awasake that are fun, easy and can be enjoyed without thinking about it too much.

Here are a couple of great sparkling sakes that don’t have Awasake certification for separate reasons. For the Mizubasho Pure, it’s now certified but as this association is brand new (2016), what’s currently in the market is pre-certification.

Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori – a slightly cloudy sake that has notes of honeydew, Asian pears and tropical fruits. It’s been carbonated so although it will never be a certified Awasake. Nonetheless, a delicious sparkling sake with lots of potential for pairing potential.






Mizubasho Pure – Nagai brewery was one of the frontiers in making a traditional method sparkling sake. They researched for years how to utilize Champagne techniques in a sake context and was instrumental in forming this association. The Pure is clean with precise bubbles and a great mouthfeel.

Christmas in Japan = KFC?

The holidays is a time of year when family and friends gather around – what else – food. I grew up with roast beef (my favourite) alongside big bowls of white rice and soy sauce at the dinner table on Christmas Eve. Awkward conversations, ever-so drunken uncles and aunts, everyone’s got memories of this time of year: the good, the bad and the ugly. Whatever your story may be, eating and drinking is probably a part of it.

I’ve seen holiday dinners with pierogies, cabbage rolls, sushi and my favourite, KFC. In Japan, turkeys aren’t easy to find. Turkey legs or breasts maybe, but certainly not the whole bird. In the 1970s, Kentucky Fried Chicken found a way to market the Japanese obsession with all things American during the holidays by promoting buckets of KFC fried chicken as a Christmas treat, along with a snowy-white Christmas cake.

You can pre-order these dinners, which now include a bottle of sparkling wine. Maybe it sounds strange but maybe they were onto something; maybe they were a little ahead of the times, as hipster restaurants have sprung up in some of our favourite hipster neighbourhoods around the world serving up fried chicken and grower-Champagne. Whether you’re a Juke Chicken (YVR), Church’s Chicken or KFC fan, here are a few beverages to accompany your crispy, salty drumstick or two:

Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2015 – not quite sparkling but the way this eccentric brewery pasteurizes the sake leaves a little tingle on the palate. Delicious with a salty, not so spicy fried chicken recipe.


Tengumai Yamahai Junmai – brewed using the powers of natural fermentation and without adding lactic acid, this sake is salty, mouth-watering  and food-perfect. Drink slightly chilled for lots of acidity and umami. An easy pick for all things fried.


Hubert Paulet Premier Cru 2005 Rose – a grower Champagne producer who sells half their grapes to Billecart-Salmon, this elegant but nervy rose is made up of mostly Chardonnay, with a splash of Pinot Meunier. Fine bubbles with strawberries and soft herbs on the palate goes great with fried chicken knuckles at dim sum.

My trip to: Canmore Uncorked

On April 12th, I poured wine and sake for 400 people. I was scared. Do you know what 400 people at a wine tasting looks like?

It looks like this:


And this:


Honestly, I though doing a public tasting for 400 people by yourself wasn’t going to be too hard, until I realized that there was 400 people.  So I put on a brave face instead of curling up in a ball and waited for the masses or mean, gnarly, people ready to pounce on me if I didn’t give them what they wanted. What I faced instead were some of the nicest, friendliest, open-minded people I have ever met.

I got questions about sake that were insightful and people were genuinely curious. And no one came to me with a beer, ready to do a sake bomb. Figure that!

It shouldn’t really have been a surprise, considering that they live here: IMG_5273

And that the organizer of the event, Kevin, who owns Crush & Cork in town, is also one of the nicest, curious and passionate people I have come across. Doesn’t hurt that he’s got a kick-ass store (with beautiful new shelves, I might add) with a great sake and wine selection.

Even after 7 years of doing this, it’s always nice to be reminded that there are unexpected markets and people that get good sake and have passion for what they do. It makes it worth traveling to -30 degrees places to do sake dinners in the winter or carrying 30 cases of sake up the stairs for a delivery.  At least in hindsight!

Crush & Cork – Wine, Beer & Spirits – Canmore:

  • 117-1000 7th Avenue
    Canmore, AB T1W 2A7