This Unpasteurized Sake Is the Freshest, Funkiest Sip of Spring
Earlier this year at a Manhattan liquor store, I came across a bunch of different bottles all labeled "namazake." I had happened upon a cache of unpasteurized sakes. These, I thought, are a find.
After brewing, most sakes are heated to kill bacteria and deactivate enzymes, rendering them shelf stable. Namazakes skip that process. Sold with the microorganisms that created them still alive, they're like the natural wines of the sake world. They're the liveliest, boldest of Japanese brews.
In Japan, namazake is an annual favorite. At the end of winter brewing season, when the cherry trees are budding, namazake heralds spring. People enjoy it with seasonal foods like sansai, or "mountain vegetables," young bamboo, ferns, and other foraged plants. Many namas are on the fruity side, meant to drink young and fresh.
That's why the wine-shop namas surprised me: Normally, namazakes that reach the U.S. are pre-sold to Japanese restaurants, which serve them in celebration of spring, just as in Japan. It's been rare to find them in retail outlets.
Then came the pandemic. "All that earmarked nama arrived on cargo ships in March 2020, just as restaurants shut down," Monica Samuels, sake expert for the importer Vine Connections, told me. "The silver lining was that smart retailers got a hold of it instead."
Indeed, the namas I found were marked with 2020 release dates; they had been inadvertently aged. Curious, I tried a few, and contrary to popular belief, they were delicious. Those randy little bugs inside can evolve the brew in unpredictable ways. But for someone like me who enjoys sakes with funkier flavors, an aged namazake can be a delicious adventure.
In fact, there's a growing trend in Japan toward aging namazakes, propelled by a few cult bars where proprietors hold back bottles. One is Kyoto's Yoramu, owned by exporter Yoram Ofer, whose aged namazakes are available online through Namazake Paul and at places like the Santa Fe ryokan Ten Thousand Waves; Los Angeles bottle shop Ototo; and Brooklyn restaurant Rule of Thirds. Traditional brewing methods—beating or heating the yeast starter, milling less to retain more of the rice's earthier layers—develop more of the lactic and amino acids that help these umami-packed sakes stand up to aging.
By contrast, ginjo namazakes, made with rice polished to 60 percent or more, are fruity and delicate. But a well-made ginjo can be gorgeous after a year in the bottle. A favorite of mine is Rihaku "Origin of Purity" Junmai Ginjo Genshu. Made at Rihaku Brewery, overseen by master brewer and fifth-generation owner Yuichiro Tanaka in rural Shimane Prefecture in Japan's southwest, this sake is complex and charismatic. Like many genshu, or undiluted, namazakes, this one is exuberant. Take a whiff, and you get a nose full of overripe cantaloupe. Cold fermentation amplifies those fruity notes, and the rose-vine yeast Tanaka uses brings an elegant floral edge.
Underlying Origin of Purity's nougat-y sweetness, there's a vegetal, mineral flavor akin to raw jicama. Tanaka's well-developed koji, or fermentation starter, is full of savory amino acids. Those mineral tones are also due to the sake's base material. Omachi, an ancient rice, is rare nowadays; its tall stalks are difficult to farm. But Tanaka sources it fastidiously and polishes it to 55 percent, leaving some of the earthier parts of the grain. That adds robustness, while Omachi's ample starch center brings luscious texture.
All of these characteristics are amplified, says sommelier–turned–sake expert Paul Willenberg, in a bottle with age. "The 2021 is really taut," he says, "but the 2020 has gained weight, flesh, and even fruit." Both are available now, so if you're lucky to score both, you can clock the nama's evolution.
But at either age, Origin of Purity exhibits another Omachi trait: After waves of bold flavor, each sip cleanses your palate with a tea-like astringency. That makes it go great with food. Enjoy it alongside a meaty dish: roast chicken, roast pork, or dry-aged beef, perhaps with teriyaki sauce. And for the most vibrant flavor, store it very cold and drink it within a few days of opening.
To buy: Rihaku "Origin of Purity" Junmai Ginjo Genshu, $38, namazakepaul.square.site.