4 Women-Powered Sakes to Try Right Now, According to a Sake Expert
From dry table sakes to funky, unpasteurized brews, these sakes taste great in a flight or on their own.
In ancient times, the Japanese rice wine known as sake was primarily made by women. The word toji, which refers to the head sake brewer, translates loosely to "matron" or "housewife," and it wasn’t until years later that men began dominating the industry, often passing down the job of toji from father to son in long-standing, family-run breweries. In some cases, women weren’t even allowed in the brewery. Recently, though, more women have been returning to the craft—in roles from brewermaster to brewery president—and are now behind some of the country’s best bottles.
Besides driving brewing innovations that lead to more interesting product, the influx of women in the industry has, unsurprisingly, added more depth to sake’s culture. For Kelly Brophy, beverage director at Japanese-style izakaya Nunu (and sister restaurant Cheu Fishtown) in Philadelphia, learning about this culture was a big part of the drink’s initial draw, and continues to inspire her. “It’s so intentionally beautiful,” she says. “Everyone takes a lot of pride in creating it.”
To celebrate Women’s History Month, Nunu has been highlighting what they’re calling “female-powered sake breweries.” For $25, patrons can pair dishes like yakitori and smoked eggplant katsu curry with a flight of three two-ounce pours, each with its own complex taste and cool story. Read on for Brophy’s picks, including the three showcased in the flight, and one more menu mainstay.
Tsukinowa "Blue Hue" Honjozo
Head brewer Hiroko Yokozawa is not only making award-winning sake, she’s also innovating the brewing process. Sake lees, or kasu, is a solid byproduct of the fermentation process, and is typically used to make other foods (it works for pickling or marinating, for example.) But instead of selling or tossing the kasu, Yokozawa is using it to make shōchū—a distilled spirit—and adding that back into her rice wine for a fortified version of Honjozo-style sake. “In a traditional industry, she’s doing something really progressive,” says Brophy. Blue Hue is a dry, easy-drinking table sake that can be served hot or cold.
Kaetsu "Bride of the Fox" Junmai Ginjo
Hailing from the Niigata Prefecture, Kaetsu Shuzo is a husband-and-wife operation in which both partners come from a long line of sake brewers. Yoshiko Sato is the Director of International Business, tasked with selling the brewery’s products to foreign markets. One of these is Bride of the Fox, named for the region’s annual festival. Brophy calls this one “elegant and expressive,” with a smooth mouthfeel and notes of sweet peanut butter.
Moriki "Sublime Beauty" Nama Junmai Arabashiri Kimoto Muroka Genshu
Japan’s first female brewmaster, Rumiko Moriki is the fourth generation to own and run her family brewery. (She’s also the subject of a popular manga comic series illustrating her work.) The brewery uses organic rice they grow, and most of the processes are done by hand. According to Brophy, Moriki sakes are “distinctive and rule-breaking,” and this one—made with minimal intervention—is no exception. The unfiltered, undiluted, unpasteurized brew kicks off with savory umami and finishes with bright notes of citrus and apple. “It’s a weirdo sake that we all love,” says Brophy.
Umenoyado Shuzo “Crazy Milk” Nigori
This boundary-pushing brewery in Nara Prefecture is run by Kayo Yoshida, fifth-generation owner of the company, and the country’s first female president of any sake brewery. Crazy Milk is a staff favorite and menu-staple, thanks to its balanced flavor. “I like that it’s not cleanly sweet,” says Brophy. “It has some sweetness, but it’s tart, with a lactic acid quality—kind of tangy like yogurt. And it’s a nigori [unfiltered], so it has some sediment, with a thicker mouthfeel.”