Category Archives: Tastings

Fear not: Niwa’s Sunday tastings will help you navigate sake’s goodness

Jettison
A man and his brews: At Niwa, George Kaiho’s sake game is strong.

Let’s say you are the type of diner who confidently fords a robata grill menu, stoutly navigating the fare only to break into a paralytic stupor at the sight of an extensive sake list. Faced with a noodle bowl of unfamiliar terms, you might very well leap into the abyss of a random choice or opt for a safer fallback (“Sapporo, please!”) — but wouldn’t life be one less mystery burdened if you knew what all those enigmatic terms meant?

Deep Ellum
Partially unfiltered Daku sake, paired with a Wagyu short rib deviled egg.

Fortunately for you, George Kaiho is here to help. The resident bar manager at mezcal/sherry bar Jettison in Oak Cliff, Kaiho has been moderating a series of sake tastings every other Sunday at Deep Ellum’s Niwa Japanese BBQ, sharing his love and considerable knowledge of Japan’s brewed, rice-based alcohol with anyone who will listen. (Niwa’s next sake tasting will be Sunday, Aug. 6.)

This is the way to explore sake: In dribs and drabs, with an experienced tour guide leading the way. Niwa’s tastings begin with a thin spiral-ring booklet called “A Guide To Tasting Sake.” Inside is a detailed description of sake production along with a map of the 47 prefectures of Japan. And because one is never too old for sticker books, attendees also receive a baggie of stickers with photos of the five premium sakes to be sampled and background on each; these can be applied to pages in the booklet with space for notes about each sake’s first impressions, tasting notes, pairing ideas and more.

Niwa, Jettison
Kaiho explains the meaning behind the name of Dassai’s “Otterfest” sake at a tasting in July. “This one’s special,” he said.

Each sake – all of them registering about 15 percent alcohol – is paired with a small bite. At Niwa’s inaugural sake tasting in late June, first up was the Daku Nigori, nigori meaning a sake left partially unfiltered; with a milky, porridge-like texture, it’s best served chilled. Offering notes of grape, berry, banana and pear, the Daku was paired with a Wagyu short rib deviled egg, a rich contrast to its viscous, syrupy sweetness.

Kaiho, who was born in Dallas but grew up in Japan, explained that while sake’s quality and diversity are similar to wine, it ‘s better compared to beer, being less affected by climate than by the production process itself. “Wine is about what happens in the vineyard,” he said. “This is more like a beer. It’s about what happens along the way.”

Restaurant owner Jimmy Niwa displays the evening’s menu at a sake tasting last month.

Cheap sakes abound, but it’s premium sakes that are on the rise, one of the main characteristics being the degree to which the rice is polished, or washed, since the grains’ exterior layers offer less desirable flavors to the final product. To be called premium, a sake’s grains must have been polished down by at least 30 percent. “Ginjo” sake has been 40 percent polished, “Daiginjo” 50 percent.

Our second sake was Otokoyama’s Tokubetsu (special) Junmai from Hokkaido prefecture, one of Japan’s northernmost breweries, founded in 1661. While some producers add alcohol to sakes to bypass the lengthy fermentation process, a junmai sake is free of such chicanery; made with snowmelt well water, ours was dry with apple notes and it paired well with the starch of spicy fries and wasabi aioli.

Cowboy Yamaha
Shiokawa brewery’s “Cowboy” Yamahai sake, paired with Niwa’s pork belly bun at a tasting in July.

Next up, the Kirinzan Classic, immediately distinguished by a funky, yeasty aroma. Its watery, nearly flavorless taste blossomed into an apple/pear finish; Kaiho speculated that yeasts were likely added during production with a neutral spirit added to halt fermentation. (Trickery! See above paragraph.) It coupled nicely with a salty kara-age chicken.

Fourth up was Masumi’s highly drinkable Karakuchi Kiippon, a junmai ginjo (no added alcohol, 40 percent polished) made with soft mountainous water from Japan’s alpine Nagano region. (The Coors of Japan!) Kaiho said this particular sake, served with sashimi, was a favorite when he worked at Tei-An, where tables of buoyant imbibers would order bottle after bottle. Pleasantly refreshing with a clean, cucumber-y taste, our glass at Niwa was appropriately flanked by a crab cucumber roll.

Jettison, sake
Kaiho demonstrating the art of the proper pour at a sake tasting in July.

Our final pour was Kirinzan’s Junmai Ginjo. The brewery, founded in 1843, gets both its water and rice from Niigata prefecture, and Kirinzan is a so-called zizake (local) sake consumed largely by local inhabitants. Sweet and clean with a lovely floral character, it was paired with sushi.

At the moment, Niwa offers the tastings for a generous $20-$25, a bargain compared to the pricey sake dinners Kaiho oversaw when he worked at Tei-An. The booklets have enough pages to accommodate multiple visits. “If you come to four or five, you’ll end up with a good book of sakes you can keep to yourself,” Kaiho said. (Actually, two tastings was enough to fill up my booklet, but I’ll not quibble with a pleasant buzz and a good time, provided the math isn’t torpedoing my wallet.)

And anyway, “the goal here is not to make money,” said restaurant owner Jimmy Niwa. “It’s to show people what sake is all about.”

And that right there should be reason enough to give sake’s goodness a try, for goodness’ sake.

NIWA, 2939 Main Street, Dallas.  

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From the Venezuelan jungle, a most unique gin — and a rare tasting experience for Dallas

Hendrick's Gin
Out of the jungle, a mysterious elixir.

Whether the whole thing was for real it was hard to tell, but it’s fair to say we wanted it to be. As Dallas bartender Stephen Halpin would later put it, the lines between fairy tale and fact were “bewitchingly blurred.” What were the chances that Hendrick’s Gin’s master distiller and global ambassador would be dispatched into the Venezuelan jungle in search of a unique ingredient with which to produce a spirit that would never see mass production?

“This was an experiment,” said David Piper, the Scotland-based company’s global ambassador. “A little bit of an indulgence.”

So began the saga of Hendrick’s’ so-called Perilous Botanical Quest, a zesty tale of pluck and determination spun early this month for two dozen DFW-area bartenders and spirit enthusiasts at, fittingly, the Dallas Zoo.In a setting of artificial moss, magnifying glasses, mini-globes and creepy-crawly things under glass – a most exotic and scientific atmosphere indeed – containers of crispy edible mealworms and crickets offered themselves for the taking, the former echoing corn nuts, the latter salty sunflower seed shells. It all fit the brand’s cheeky, carnival-esque vibe.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Adventurous tales require adventurous snacks.

The mysterious gin – dubbed Kanaracuni – was labeled with clinical small-batch simplicity. As we explored our fantastical surroundings, a concoction was prepared – a mix of caramelized pineapple and peppercorn to which was added cinnamon, lemon, vanilla liqueur and finally gin. The drinks were served in distinctive gourds with metal tea straws, the kind with enlarged, enclosed ends with small holes to strain out leaves.

A short film delivered the thrilling narrative: The intrepid Hendrick’s team, joined by practiced explorer Charles Brewer-Carias and botanist Francisco Delascio, set deep into the Guayana Highlands, into an area “nestled among vertiginous crags and protected by ancient spirits” and hostile wilds teeming with what Piper not so fondly remembered as “lots of nasty little stinging things.” With them they had a baby 10-litre copper still, a small ice machine and generator, spices, freeze-dried cucumber and, judging from the final frames, at least one incredibly sturdy martini glass.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Caramelizing pineapple and peppercorn for the first cocktail.

They were seeking an ingredient to complement Hendrick’s’ floral, green and spicy profile. The team befriended natives of the village Kanaracuni, a small-statured tribe with four-foot blowpipes who introduced them to local herbs and spices – many of them “mesmerizingly pungent, but not quite right,” said Piper, looking like a pith-helmeted Bradley Cooper.

Then, on the seventh day, they found scorpion tail – a leafy plant drunk in tea form by the locals as a digestive aid. (The same Venezuelan plant appears to be described in a 1968 article by researcher John H. Masters in The Journal of the Lepidopterists Society.) The taste was just what master distiller Lesley Gracie, a wee fairy godmother with a youthful smile and a mile-long mane of hair, was looking for. “We rubbed it in our hands,” she said. “It was very green, almost cucumber. I knew it would fit the profile…. I don’t think we could have picked anything better to strike all the cues.”

Hendrick's Gin
Through the looking glass: A cocktail served in a tiny gourd with a metal tea straw.

There in the jungle, Gracie produced a trial distillate, quickly deemed a success. She then made nearly 9 liters of concentrated scorpion’s tail, which with some difficulty the team managed to transport back to Europe. That became 350 liters of gin. “That’s all we have of this Kanaracuni,” Piper said.

As the film came to a close, we were treated to small samples of the prize distillate. No doubt the story’s allure added to its appeal, but it was lovely – the familiar Hendrick’s taste, less juniper-heavy than other gins and rife with floral and cucumber notes, but with a little extra, something like the tangerine-y sweet-and-sour taste of kumquat.

Then came a Kanaracuni martini. Eyes widened: Could this be for real, considering how little of this there was to go around? Dallas was one of only a select handful of cities on this tour, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Boston. But that wasn’t all: The Hendrick’s team then turned over to the group their bar setups – including a bottle or two of Kanaracuni – for our own experimentation.

“There’s very little of this gin,” Piper said. “It’s best to keep it as pure as possible. But the more you play with it, the more remarkable things it does.”

Hendrick's Gin
Creating a buzz: The rare liquid was unveiled in the most exotic of atmospheres.

That Hendrick’s would create such a rare spirit just to showcase the brand’s pursuit of new flavors “was an extremely cool move,” said Tate’s bartender Austin Gurley. And to choose DFW as one of few venues to unveil it was an honor, too. “Dallas has stepped up in the cocktail world,” he said.

None of us were botanically informed enough at the time to ask whether this elusive Venezuelan plant was the same scorpion tail wildflower found throughout Florida and southern Texas. Maybe climatic differences make that a moot point, anyway. Yet despite the proclamation that Kanaracuni would never be available for retail, one had to think Hendrick’s would ultimately decide whether to produce more based on how it was received during this exclusive tour. Wouldn’t they?

Hendrick's Gin
Bartender Juli Naida of Barter enjoys a gourd drink now and then.

But I later found an October 2013 article from London’s Daily Telegraph that detailed the same jungle narrative and noted that Gracie was then working on the final recipe for a small batch that would be available in 2014. A short time earlier, at London Cocktail Week, Hendricks’ Britain ambassador Duncan McRae had said the entire batch would be drunk during a series of special events the next year.“There is something quite special about a drink made in a finite quantity being entirely consumed over a short period,” McRae said then. “Once it’s been drunk, it will be gone forever.”

And if that’s truly the case, we had been part of a real adventure indeed.

Gin
The makings of a uniquely mystical and improbable tasting event at the Dallas Zoo.