Monthly Archives: March 2016

Awamori – the spirit of the islands

nam zestAwamori is the celebrated spirit originating in and unique to the Ryukyu Islands (Nansei Islands in Japanese) of Okinawa. It is made from long-grain Thai rice, which historically has been used in this region. The Ryukyu Kingdom was independent and ruled most of these islands from the 15th to the 19th century.

The name Okinawa means “rope in the open sea” which refers to this long swathe of islands between Taiwan and the four main islands of Japan. It consists of around 50 inhabited islands and more than 100 uninhabited ones. It was a tributary both of China and of Japan and a convenient portal for Japanese trade with China. When Japan officially closed its doors to all European nations except the Dutch, Nagasaki and the Ryukyu Islands became the only Japanese trading ports connected with the outside world. It has therefore had a more open nature and has developed its own culinary culture.

Okinawa-9-webShort-grain rice is generally used for sake- and shochu-making in Japan, but Okinawa uses long-grain Indica Thai rice instead. Centuries ago the islands had easier access to this rice than products from the rest of Japan. It is thought that sake was brought to Okinawa from Siam around the late 14th to 15th century. Okinawa’s distilled Awamori liquor is considered the forefather of the more widely known shochu which is popular throughout Japan. Unlike shochu, Awamori is made only from rice, where shochu can have other ingredients such as barley and sweet potato.

Awamori uses an active culture, aspergillus awamori, also known as black koji, in contrast to shochu that uses white koji. The black koji produces a large amount of citric acid that keeps Awamori free from unwanted and distracting elements. Black koji grows throughout the year in the warm climate of Okinawa. White koji generally grows only in the coldest months in mainland Japan, meaning that Awamori can be produced year-round rather than just in winter.

Awamori is unlike sake in that sake is mostly consumed young, while Awamori ages well. Traditionally a number of jars of the beverage would be kept, with the oldest being nearer the door and successively younger vintages behind. As a quantity was used from the oldest Awamori, the jar would be topped up with the next in line which would be topped up with the next youngest and so on, in the same way that balsamic vinegar and sherry are aged. In reality that meant that no jar was of a particular age, as it was always a blend of younger and older awamori.

Okinawa-2-webThere are vintage Awamori bottles that are held in the same regard as fine whisky and wine, with age giving a richer and deeper taste.  Those that are said to be aged more than 3 years are called Kusu (‘old liquor’), and are particular popular. In reality it’s called Kusu when at least 50 percent of the beverage is aged for three or more years. It is distilled once, and afterwards the alcohol content is lowered with pure water to about 25 to 30 percent, although some Awamori is found at more than 40 percent alcohol. Awamori is traditionally aged in clay pots which is thought to improve its flavour and softness.

Some Awamori has been aged for decades and there are subterranean cellars that are used for keeping bottles that are bought to celebrate the birth of a child or other important events. The temperature in these caves is a little too warm to keep wine but they are perfect for Awamori. The most popular way to drink Awamori is with water and ice. It can also be drunk straight, on the rocks, and in cocktails. I have been told that you won’t wake up with a hangover, either.

Okinawa is an undiscovered gem, at least by non-Japanese. It has a delightful tropical climate with all the associated crops. The cuisine is a little different from the rest of Japan, with more influences from China. Awamori pairs perfectly with these dishes. These islands should be a magnet for any lover of good food and those interested in a slightly different aspect of Japanese culture. The chance to sip Awamori in its place of origin, and perhaps to see it made, would be special.

Find out more about Okinawa and Awamori here.

Advanced Sake Sommelier Course Report: Mai Segawa

In November Mai Segawa was awarded with the title of Young Sake Ambassador. Mai has since embarked on her journey of sake education.

Mai Segawa Young Sake Ambassador 1

Mai attended the Sake Sommelier Association’s March Advanced Sake Sommelier course.

Below are her experiences:

Advanced Sake Sommelier Course

By: Mai Segawa

mai segawaWhen I attended London’s Advanced Sake Sommelier Course in Matsuyama, Japan, I received the warmest welcome from the local sake breweries, hotel, and restaurant staff. Each person we encountered went above and beyond to makes us feel welcome.

What a unique experience- exploring Matsuyama, Japan was our ‘classroom’. Breathing the air, trying the local cuisine with freshly pressed sake from the brewery you just visited, and getting high quality tours of the local sake breweries from the owner himself was part of our education. We could ask unlimited questions and learn as much as possible. I made new friends with my fellow classmates from the wine, food, and champagne industry.

Kumiko, Xavier, & Rod have designed this course in such a way that prioritizes a high quality learning experience. By having a small cohort of students, it is possible to be fully immersed in the sake making process through active brewery tours and hands on tactile training from the sake experts. So many good memories of drying the freshly steamed rice with our hands, mashing the sake Moromi rice, smelling the banana and melon aromas of the yeast, tasting the freshly pressed nama daiginjo sake, and rolling the Koji Rice together, we had a blast using all of our senses to actively learn more about the sake making process.

Mai (right) with SSA Educator Rod (left)

Although many can learn the basic sake making process through books and courses, only a few can say that they have visited some sake breweries in Japan and seen with their own eyes and made with their own hands different aspects of the sake making process.

The course is structured in a way so that intermediate sake learners can learn and benefit just as much as seasoned sake professionals. Take an excellent sake course such as the Certified Sake Sommelier course beforehand to fully enjoy this advanced sake course in Japan. Designed for those that are curious about sake and willing to learn the fun way.

Mai Segawa

Young Sake Ambassador


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It’s a buzz-word these days: Umami. It’s a very familiar taste, flavour, sensation on the taste buds but we have only relatively recently put a name to this savouriness, this deliciousness. That’s umami; but how is it viewed with regard to sake?

roka sashimi

Umami was originally a Japanese word and it’s all about a particular taste: of ingredients, of foods and drinks, and that includes sake. These days it’s considered by some to be a recognised flavour just like sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Parmesan cheese and tomatoes are very Western ingredients that can be described as having umami, just like some sake.


Umami is often associated with amino acid content. Glutamic acid is one of the main types of amino acids giving the umami flavour. This was discovered back in the early 1900s. Sake has much more of this than wine, which has 10-90g per litre, while sake has 100-250g per litre. Sake is considered rich in umami and pairs well with foods displaying those same characteristics. Umami in a sake is not always welcomed, as a surfeit can present undesirable ‘off notes’. Dry, light sake often lacks very much umami and would work well with fresh and lightly dressed salads, some vegetarian dishes and delicate fish dishes. Sake styles with an evident umami content pair with raw or lightly fried fish, and some miso-based and mild cream-based sauces.


Umami: THE FIFTH TASTE is a beautiful guide to that elusive taste, that confuses some people to the extent that they still don’t believe it actually exists. With forewords by two world-renowned leaders in the culinary industry, chef Thomas Keller and food journalist Harold McGee, this book offers examples, recipes (including umami sweets by Regis Cursan and Keiko Nagae), history and many striking pictures by Akira Saito to illustrate the theme, and information on the science behind the recognition of umami taste. The volume also includes interviews with Michael Anthony, Heston Blumenthal, Alexander Bourdas, David Kinch, Virgilio Martinez, Nobu Matsuhisa, Yoshihiro Murata and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. A creditable line-up of gastronomic worthies.

Research has confirmed that our mouths contain taste receptors for umami’s savouriness. There are numerous examples of the appreciation of umami from all over the world. Marmite is one of those and I think it truly demonstrates the flavour profile of umami, albeit in a rather strident and un-Japanese way. August Escoffier, the celebrated 19th-century French chef, isn’t known to have been a lover of Marmite but he recognised that there was a savoury fifth taste. He incorporated this into stocks and it was this that was to become instrumental in his rise to fame. This isn’t a new flavour. It’s always been there but now we can put a name to it: Umami – the fifth taste.

Published by: Japan Publications Trading Company
Price: £25
ISBN-10: 488996391X
ISBN-13: 978-4889963915

Taruzake – cedar difference

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Sure, the world of sake is new and mysterious to most of us. Japan’s national beverage is made of few ingredients but there are many styles and each one has its own history and its own character. We are being offered a wider range of sake in Japanese restaurants but it’s a shame that non-Japanese restaurants are not aware of the Sake Buzz, the sake wave of appreciation.

There is one variety of sake that has always intrigued me, one with a very pronounced flavour – of wood. No, not the taste of knotty pine nor the richness of mahogany (although I have never had a chew of either of those). Here we are talking cedar and that taste is there for a reason which dates back centuries.

Let’s put this into historic context. Until the beginning of the 20th century sake was stored and transported in wooden barrels made of Japanese cedar called sugi. It was only when it reached the sake shop that it was put into ceramic vessels. These vessels can still be seen if one is lucky enough to visit a sake brewery, many of which have been plying their trade for more than a dozen generations.


Taruzake sake (also called Taru) is the name of this distinctive style of sake. It is aged in casks or barrels called ‘taru’ from which it gets its name, but these days the sake stays in wood for only a couple of weeks and then it’s bottled in glass. It isn’t exported in wood as it takes too long in transit. Any longer aging than a couple of weeks impairs the delicacy and produces a sake which has overpowering flavour and aroma. The iconic barrel is usually made of cedar wood and is different in each region but cedar grown in the Yoshino district of Nara is considered the most prized for the job. The wood imparts a distinctive light smoky cinnamon scent and flavour which is quite unique and which I find rather pleasant.


Taruzake is a very popular drink in Japan on New Year’s Eve. It is essential at every kagami biraki cask-opening event. The fourth Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna (1641 – 1680) is thought to be the first one to hold this lid-breaking ceremony. Before going to war he gathered his daimyo (feudal lords) at his castle to break open a sake barrel. The battle was won and so this colourful tradition was started and is seen at various celebrations and auspicious occasions.

A traditional kizuchi (mallet) is used to break open the lid of the small and ornate cask. These casks and associated accoutrements can actually be hired for events. For smaller gatherings an extra barrel bottom is fixed half way up so as to reduce the quantity of sake within. A hishaku (wooden ladle) is used for dipping into the sake cask and pouring the taruzake into a square masu. These are traditional wooden boxes which were originally used to portion out rations of rice. The word ‘masu’ means growth in Japanese, and so these boxes or wooden cups are also symbols of good fortune.


Taruzake is delicious when paired with smoked fish and robust meat dishes, but surprisingly it works well with creamy cheeses. I was introduced to this combination at a cheese and sake pairing event with Kiko Ito who is  a cheese adviser. Here we tasted Taruzake with Burrata cheese mixed with Crème Fraîche garnished with Japanese soy sauce and wasabi. Masterful!

The weather is cool so an ideal time to sip a sake which has warming notes on both the palate and the nose.

Norway: Feb 2016 Certified Sake Sommelier Course Report


Certified Sake Sommelier Course accredited by London based Sake Sommelier Association was organised in Oslo on 28 and 29 February 2016 in close cooperation with Nøgne Ø

It was held at the basement of Alex Sushi Solli Plass, an artistic and tastefully decorated event venue with modern AV system. Participants of the course were sommeliers who are also beverage managers from leading restaurants around the country such as Alex Sushi, Nodee, Kita (Stavanger), To Rom og Kjøkken (Trondheim), and fellow brewery representative from Lervig which has just brewed beer with Japanese twist (with Yuzu), as well as a representative of Moestue, which has started importing Sake into Norwegian market and Arne Austbø, author of cook book “Sushi fra Hav til Fat” and the chef of Taku. Martin, new sales representative from Nøgne Ø also joined. After two days of intensive learning, the participants took written and practical exam and I am happy to announce that they all did exceptionally well.

They will soon receive Sake Sommelier pin and a certificate from Sake Sommelier Academy in London. Some of them will be crowned with triple (wine, beer and sake) or double (wine and sake) sommelier qualifications as a result of this.
This will open doors to participate in the London Sake Challenge which is organized by the Sake Sommelier Association once a year in August at the wine room of notable Harrods Department Store in London and it is certainly a great opportunity to taste and evaluate a large number of sakes with other fellow Sake Sommeliers from around the world and to learn, network and exchange information face-to-face.

SSA Norway 1

SSA Norway 2

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During a two-day intensive course, participants learned the history of sake which dates more than 2000 years back, culture closely related to sake and a complex production process and how it affects the designation and types of sake. They also learned how to read sake labels, magic of serving sake at different temperatures, and quintessential “Umami” in sake which comes to the fore when paring with food. We were also very fortunate to welcome Halvor Digernes, the founder of Fuglen Cocktail Bar, to share the art of sake cocktail-making who demonstrated three distinct types of sake cocktails, two shaken and one stirred, from Nøgne Ø Namagenshu, Junmai and Sparkling sakes. He was in the middle of opening two new bars in the same week and we appreciated his dedication and passion for what he loves and what he is very good at!

Participants had the chance to taste last year’s IWC champion sake, which was sold out in Japan, (Aizuhomare’s Banshu Yamadanishiki Junmai Daiginjo), six-year oak barrel matured sake (seimaibuai 90% Junmai) from Suehiro Brewery (which was also sold out in Japan), and Junmai Ginjo Fukuju from Kobe Shushinkan, which is said to be served at Nobel prize award dinners at Stockholm, Junmai and Junmai Ginjo sakes from Fukumitsuya, sparkling sakes from Ninki and Toyokuni, all sakes from Nøgne Ø including soon to be released Nigori (and Sparkling, Junmai, Namagenshu, Motoshibori, Kijoshu) as well as specialty sakes such as All Koji vintage sake and Yuzu sake.

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They also tasted Nøgne Ø fresh sake lees with brown sugar and ginger and savoured Ishikari Nabe (salmon hotpot with miso and sake lees soup broth) for the first day’s lunch.

SSA Norway 5

We also had a surprise visit of NHK International (Japanese version of BBC World) film crew who were making a 15 minutes documentary on Nøgne Ø, the first sake brewery in Europe as one of the episodes in “Japan meets Europe” series.

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Participants came to the classroom well before the start of the lecture and they all asked very pertinent questions which in turn enriched the classroom experience. At the end of the course, we were all reminded that the more we drink “sake” the deeper our knowledge and appreciation of this magical drink develops!

Congratulations to you all for spending your weekend learning together and Kanpai for the future of your never-ending sake related journey!

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My heartfelt appreciation goes to all the participants who made this course very special, Alex sushi for hosting the course, Halvor for generously accepting to give a module on Sake Cocktails between his unbelievably busy schedule and Ms. Aino Karvo, sake sommelier from Finland, for meticulously assisting me, Sake Sommelier Association for a thorough backstopping from London and last but not least, Nøgne Ø for making this course happen again in Norway!!!

Kaori Ishii
Sales/Taste Promotor, Nøgne Ø
Sake Educator, Sake Sommelier Association