Boozing my way around Tohoku
Posted on February 22, 2013 by Aun
Drink-lovers (like me) have good reason to plan a Tohoku holiday. This scenic region northeast of Kanto (the region in which Tokyo sits) is home to some of the best sake breweries in Japan. While Niigata, which borders Tohoku, and which technically sits in Japan’s central Chubu region, may be the one prefecture most famous among foreigners for top-end sake, the producers in Tohoku’s prefectures churn out equally exceptional hooch.
Sadly, many of the region’s top breweries were damaged by the earthquake (and tsunami) in March 2011. Of the 114 breweries in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, for example, 93 were affected, according to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. Yet despite this, Tohoku’s sake sales in 2012 were higher than those in pre-earthquake years. This demand for Tohoku sake was, according to news reports, fueled by both domestic and foreign consumers eager to help the region’s brewers. According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, a questionnaire conducted at a sake festival in Tokyo in the Fall of 2011 revealed that 44 percent of respondents were drinking more sake from Tohoku than before the March 11 disaster. And, according to one sake brewer, once people tasted and realised how good the region’s sake was, the demand continued to rise.
During my recent whirlwind tour of Tohoku, I enjoyed many local sakes. And visited one rather special brewery. Suehiro Shuzo, founded in 1850 and located in Aizu, Fukushima, is one of the region’s largest and most famous producers. It also makes the Emperor of Japan’s favourite sake (Gensai, pictured below). Suehiro is also well-known among sake lovers because it was here, in between 1913 and 1915, that the Yamahai method of brewing sake–a method in which the brewer creates his “starter” by allowing the enzymes in the koji he uses to break down rice naturally and undisturbed–was pioneered. The resulting sake is said to have a gamier, wilder, and fuller flavour.
The sake I tasted at Suehiro was all quite special. I enjoyed an aged sake, which had an almost sherry-like quality and their sparkling, which unlike most sparkling sakes, was more dry than sweet. But it was Suehiro’s Daiginjos and Honjozos that really had me swooning. Suehiro’s Kira was dry and bracing. The brewery’s owner Mr Shinjo Inokichi told me that this sake is very popular in the United States; it is served in some of the country’s top sushi bars. Suehiro’s Mai Daiginjo was mellow, fragrant and very refined. Mr Inokichi whispered to me that the Conrad Bangkok serves this sake, but marked up some 1,000%!
Suehiro Brewery is open to visitors, and offers hourly guided tours. The tour includes a walk through the brewing areas with explanations of the sake making process, a small museum with displays of the brewery’s history and the history of sake making, and a visit to the factory store with a tasting bar where you can sample from and buy nearly their entire product line.
One of the things I was most looking forward to in Tohoku was visiting Nikka Whisky’s Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai. I’m a huge fan of Japanese whiskies. In fact, for the most part, I prefer Japanese whisky to Scottish whisky (my own personal favourite everyday pour is Suntory’s Hibiki 17 year old). I was very much looking forward to seeing how Nikka made its whiskies as well as getting the chance to taste and purchase some special products/releases that might only be available at the distillery.
The brewery itself is also really pretty. It made me think of an IT or university campus. Red-brick buildings surrounded by lush scenery on all sides. You couldn’t imagine a nicer or more idyllic place to produce such beautiful product.
And boy, did I get to sample some simply stunning product. At the end of the tour, you are led to a large bar. There you will be given free samples of three of Nikka’s more standard whiskies. Beyond that bar, down a small staircase, lies a large gift shop. And just past the gift shop, in a discrete corner, sits a small, elegant bar, looked after by one elder gentleman. This is where you can order tastes of the full range of whiskies available at the Miyagikyo distillery.
My guide and I, both whisky lovers, approached the bar grinning like little kids. She immediately went for the top quality stuff, ordering a taste of a 25 year old single cask whisky. I started slow, asking about the 12-year old “Key Malts” that were on display. In particular, I was keen to try the “sherry & sweet”, which I was told was aged in sherry casks, and the “fruity & rich”, which was aged in bourbon casks. While the former was a tad too sweet for my palate, I really loved the latter, and picked up a bottle for myself and another for a friend. I then moved on to try a few more really superb whiskies, but the one that stood out (for me at least) was a 20-year old Miyagikyo Single Cask that had been aged in a sherry cask. While this whisky was sweet, it also had immense depth and power. A truly stunning drink. While pricey, I couldn’t help but pick up a bottle for myself and one for my brother, also a whisky fan.
After this experience, I’ll definitely be planning return trips to Miyagikyo as well as trips to other whisky distilleries across Japan. In fact, I’m already plotting to visit Suntory’s Yamazaki brewery when S and I go to Kyoto this coming April.
When I was planning this trip, visiting a beer brewery was not something I had originally considered. But on one of the days, we had a couple of hours to kill on the way to check into our hotel in Sendai, so we decided to pop by the Kirin Brewery in Sendai. This particular factory was very heavily damaged during the tsunami. It wasn’t until 8 months after, in fact, that the brewery was able to start shipping product again.
The Kirin Brewery offers group tours to visitors. It’s a simple walk through of the facilities, during which the brewing process is explained. After that, guests are ushered to a large hall and, as you would expect, a long bar. Every visitor is allowed up to 3 pints of the various Kirin beers on draught. This is why, in my estimation, the tour is as popular as it appeared to be. As we were sipping our suds, our tour guide demonstrated the “proper” way to pour a beer. Which was more amusing (to me) than educational.
Suehiro Shuzo (sake brewery)
Nikka Miyagikyo distillery