Sake royalty

A cult sake house from Fukui, Kokuryu is famous in the sake world for its two liquid objects of desire - Ishidaya and Nizaemon.

He may be wearing a sporty down jacket and a bandana but there is no mistaking Naoto Mizuno for anything less than sake royalty.

Mr Mizuno is the president of Kokuryu and the eighth-generation owner of the cult sake house from Fukui. This prefecture in western Honshu next to the icy cold Sea of Japan is famous for its giant Echizen crab. But Fukui is equally well-known for the pure spring water that starts out as snow on the Haku mountain, and which percolates slowly through layers of rock to become the subterranean source of the Kuzuryu river.

The water is said to take 100 years to filter its way into a well and curiously enough, it is actually blue in colour. It is also so clean, it is tasteless. Sake is made from rice, and since 1804 when Kokuryu was founded, this same water has been used for both washing the rice and brewing what is arguably Japan's most coveted sake.

There are a few reasons for Kokuryu's fame but you won't find out by asking its exceedingly unassuming owner. Mr Mizuno does, however, point out that Kokuryu is special for its ultra-pure water that is pumped up from 75 metres below the ground.

Kokuryu, which means "black dragon", came into the national spotlight in 1993 when Crown Prince Naruhito expressed his fondness for it.

For aficionados, though, Kokuryu is special for having been one of the first brewers to create daiginjo sake in 1975. Daiginjo is produced from rice which has been milled to at least 50 per cent, so that half or less than half of the grain remains after polishing. Before that, ginjo sake was the standard, with the rice milled to 60 per cent. By removing the fats and proteins on the surface to isolate the starch centre or shinpaku, a deeper polish elicits more delicate and complex flavours.

Mr Mizuno's father, Masato, also introduced beautiful packaging for his sake bottles, such as lacquer boxes, which his son says is to "express, not promote, its value". It was unusual at that time because sake was a "daily" drink which was inexpensive to consume.

But Mr Mizuno senior's biggest coup was the introduction of another innovation to sake brewing - French wine maturation techniques. This led to the creation of two liquid objects of desire - Ishidaya and Nizaemon.

Sake may be commonly called rice wine but unlike wine, it is brewed, which means sake is drunk fresh or within a year. But Masato Mizuno aged his junmai daiginjo to completely transform its taste and make the black dragon famous.

Ishidaya matures below zero degree Celsius for more than three years for a stronger, masculine and drier but still elegant character, with hints of fresh fruit such as Japanese pear and yellow apple. On the other hand, Nizaemon's softer and more rounded flavour comes across as slightly more feminine after chilling out for a year.

Together, production of these two labels is limited to not more than 15,000 standard 720 ml bottles a year. They are bottled and released each November and such is the demand - from within Japan alone - that a ballot has to be held for ordinary buyers, while ryokans and restaurants with allocation mark up the list price by at least 150 per cent.

For comparison, the brewery has an annual production equivalent to 500,000 1.8-litre bottles of sake spread over 30 labels, plus seasonal products.

With such strong interest in its flagship sakes, will Kokuryu ramp up supply?

With a laugh, Mr Mizuno replies in his typically understated manner: "We know demand is huge but we can't create so much sake because sake is made of rice, and rice is grown by farmers. And good rice is produced only in small quantities."

Rice is, after all, the crown jewels of any sake royalty.

This article was first published on Feb 28, 2015.
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