Watari Bune Junmai Daiginjo (Sake)

Once upon a time, there grew a strain of rice whose grains were particularly dense with pure, white starch.  It was this starch that yeast would consume and convert into sugar, and then– as one of nature’s great gifts– into alcohol, or as the Japanese call it, sake.

The purer the starch, the purer the sake, and for this the rice was exceptional.  However, as with many fine things, it was also fragile.  The stalks grew very tall, and its starch-packed grains very heavy, so that the slightest gust of wind would send them falling to the ground.

In hopes of creating a more resilient strain, a new breed was engineered in 1923– Yamada Nishiki.  This hybrid strain was so successful that today, nearly all ultra-premium sakes are produced from it . . . so successful, in fact, that the original strain– the father of Yamada Nishiki– became extinct.

Watari Bune is that original rice strain.  Unlike most sake rice used today, Watari Bune is an heirloom variety, a pure strain.  (Consider here the difference in flavor between the hybrid tomatoes from your chain grocery store and the heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market in summer).  Over six decades after the birth of its replacement, it was revived in 1988 from only 14 grams of seedlings by a brewery named Huchu Homare.  They remain the only brewery that uses this rice.

This sake can be classified as a Junmai Daiginjo Nama-zume:

Junmai: No added alcohol.

Daiginjo: Brewed with rice that has been polished to less than 50% of its original size (in this case, 34%).

Nama-zume: Pasteurized only once, instead of the usual twice.

It is marked by the most pure, lingering, breathtaking clarity I’ve ever tasted.

(As an aside, there’s a marked difference between “pure” and “tasteless.”  Vodka is tasteless.  A freshly shucked oyster, or the freshest uni, or an Asian pear at the height of ripeness is pure.  Tasteless is the absence of flavor; Pure is the presence of it– indeed the essence of it.)

Tasting notes:  An incredibly evocative sake that can only be described in images: It is a bright silver moon illuminating a burbling stream in deep winter; it is fresh rainwater hitting clean pavement on a crisp October evening.  This sake possesses the same timeless quality certain black and white photographs do– Ansel Adams’ Tetons comes to mind– transporting one into a time and place that seems never to have been experienced by man, and once passed, would never be experienced again.  But, how striking the silhouette!

Flavors: Honey dew, toasted rice, rose.  Very, very fragrant.  Most strikingly, while many Junmai Daiginjos have a finish that disappears almost immediately, the finish on this lingers on and on and continues to develop, like a flower that continues to bloom in the mouth.

Price: US$120 / 750ml

Rating: Highest recommendations.

Ansel Adams, Tentons and the Snake River (1942)

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