10 Japanese Sake Brands You Should Know Before Buying
Sake is a hugely versatile beverage with a myriad of uses, with different styles more suited to different occasions than others. Not only are there many sakes, but many different kura (sake breweries) who create sensational products, each with their own story and style. This article provides an overview of Japan’s top sake brands to help you navigate the vast selection on offer and find something perfect for your palate before you make your purchase:
Situated in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the southwest of Japan’s largest island Honshu, the world-famous sake brewers Dassai creates sensational junmai daiginjo sake, focusing solely on premium creations. The company, Asahi Shuzo, embrace both high-tech machinery – being the first company to use a centrifuge to separate lees from their sake - and traditional methods to create an almost paradoxical and cutting-edge artistic philosophy, setting them out from other kura.
They use the famous Yamada Nishiki rice and clear, local water in their brewing, resulting in delicate and floral sakes. None perhaps are more successful than their award-winning Dassai 23, one of the best known in the world and the winner of everything from the International Wien Challenge 2013 Trophy to the International Sake Challenge 2013 Best Junmai Daiginjo.
Juyondai is highly sought after by sake aficionados and has a cult following. The name is associated with class and glamor, and they owe it all to their bold and expressive sakes. Brewed in Yamagata Prefecture in northwest Honshu, Juyondai was founded in 1615 and are stilling growing strong. Using a mix of Yamada Nishiki and Special Grade A Aiyama rice, their Black Label sake is a symbol of the elegance of both the Juyondai brand and sake in general.
Its growing popularity overseas is partly due to this appreciation, as well as its full flavors. The Juyondai Ryugetsu Junmai Daiginjo was hailed at the Sake Competition 2016 as being one of the best in show in the very competitive junmai daiginjo category. For glitz and glamor, look no further.
Kubota has a focus on nature and is fiercely proud of it, located in Koshiji in Niigata Prefecture, just south of Yamagata and an area renowned for its sake. The company behind the brand, Asahi-Shozu, not to be confused with Dassai’s brewers, have long sought to preserve Japanese agriculture to create better sakes through better quality sake-brewing rice.
They see their sake as a product of the land around it and thus have a deep respect for it, reducing fertilizer use and protecting the environment. They use a few different rice strains. Light, refreshing and varied, Kubota sake, including the renowned Manjyu and Suijyu labels, is made using locally-grown Gohyakumangoku rice. However, the kura also use Senshuraku rice for the impressive Esshu range and Takanenishiki rice for Senshin sakes.
Hakkaisan is another Niigata brand to keep an eye out for. Traditional Niigata sake is renowned for its clear, simple tastes thanks to the low winter temperatures and beautiful water, both products of the area’s heavy winter snows. Hakkaisan devote themselves to delivering this and reflecting the local environment in their creations. They use Gohyakumangoku and Yamada Nishiki rice and spring water from Mt. Hakkai, known as Raidensama no mizu, named after the Raiden god (god of thunder and lightning) believed to live there.
Full bodied, but not overpowering, Hakkaisan’s high-quality smooth sakes are perfect with food. They have a very wide selection of sakes to choose from, and they also produce beer and shochu, while their Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai was awarded with a Gold Award in the 2016 U.S. National Sake Appraisal Sake Competition.
Hiroki’s sake is a rare prize for sake aficionados, elusive as it is divine. They are famous for their muroka nama genshu sake (meaning unfiltered, unpasteurized and undiluted), making it difficult to preserve and thus, hard to find. But if you do find it, you’re in for a treat. This Fukushima sake brand uses locally grown Gohyakumangoku rice, creating a fine product reminiscent of a fruity white wine.
The brewery has been producing sake since the 18th century in the western Fukushima town of Aizubange. They are also known for their continued support of Fukushima produce following the 2011 disaster, when so many others left, despite it being proven to be perfectly safe. Proof of this perseverance is their Tokubetsu Junmai, which did extraordinarily well in the Sake Competition 2016.
Located in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan, Manjo-Shuzo strive to be sake pioneers, setting out to break the industry status quo, proven by their dynamic Kamoshibito Kuheiji brand. Their Kuheiji Junmai Ginjo is unlike many other sakes in a very difficult-to-define way; it has a complex and refreshing taste with a characteristic fruity aroma.
Due to the kura’s innovative spirit, their sake is much sought after and hard to find, and is also listed in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris alongside some of the world’s finest wines. They use their own Yamada Nishiki rice and also own a French winery to study and implement French wine techniques in their sake, and take to sake in the way Picasso would to painting.
Aramasa-Shuzo, in the northern Japanese Akita Prefecture, is perhaps best known for their discovery of the oldest existing sake yeast in Japan, Kyokai No.6. Aramasa still proudly use this yeast in their X-type, S-type, and R-type sakes, which have refined and elegant flavors. Their gold medal award from the Japan Sake Awards 2016 is owed to this simplicity and devotion to tradition, redefining and constantly improving their sakes.
They use Miyama Nishiki rice to create their nihonshu in small batches, brewed in giant cedar tree casks using traditional methods, while also introducing newer techniques like aging the sake in French oak barrels. Renowned for their character, Aramasa allow you to taste history and the reason for their initial success.
Founded in 1804 and nestled between Fukui Prefecture’s snowy mountains and the Sea of Japan, Kokuryu believe that their products speak for themselves. They proudly use traditional techniques and use Yamada Nishiki rice from Tojo and locally grown Gohyakumangoku rice, while sourcing their pure water from the Kuzuryu River, filtered down from the Hakusan mountains.
While they pride themselves on tradition, they’re not afraid to experiment with new techniques, and their Ryu Daiginjo was the first to apply French wine maturation techniques to sake. It was also the first nationally available daiginjo. It is due to this spirit of innovation that Kokuryu owes their success and it continues to this day, proven by their Hachijuhachigo label winning a Gold Award in the Daiginjo A category in the U.S. National Sake Appraisal 2016.
Tedorigawa was the recent subject of Erik Shirai’s award-winning documentary The Birth of Sake. Located in Ishikawa Prefecture in central Japan, Tedorigawa are well-known and loved in Japan and around the world for their devotion to ancient techniques in favor of modern technology. Founded in 1870, they exclusively produce daiginjo - highest-grade sake, favoring Yamada Nishiki rice.
Their sakes are notable for their elegance, with smooth and balanced tastes; they’re flavorful and complex but never overpowering. Their sakes are best served cold, with the exception of their Yamahai (best at room temperature). Look out for their Iki na Onna, which won the Silver Award in the Daiginjo A Class, 2013 & 2014 in the U.S. National Sake Appraisal
Budget friendly, easy-to-find, versatile, and flavorful, Gekkeikan is not only one of the world’s best-known sake manufacturers, it’s also one of the world’s oldest companies. Founded in 1637 in Fushimi, Kyoto – an area known for its high-quality water – it was just a matter of time until the brand became well-known nationwide. They use the famous Yamada Nishiki rice and have won more medals than any other sake manufacturer in Japan thanks to their versatility.
A particularly well-known sake of theirs is the Horin Gekkeikan, their highest-class junmai daiginjo, known as much for its characteristic curvy black bottle as it is for its mellow and refined taste. They also established a subsidiary in California in 1989 and now control around 25% of the American sake market. Gekkeikan are giants in the sake industry, with something to suit all tastes, determined to show sake off to the world.
Enjoy this article? Don't forget to share.