Saké TOP 5: Neutral Sake

In describing the balance of Sake flavors you probably already know there are sweet Sake, like Nigori ("Cloudy") and dry Sake, such as Onigoroshi ("Demon Slayers"). In between, on a scale called the "Sake Meter Value", are semi-sweet and semi-dry Sake. More about that here.
In between that, you will find neutral Sake.

Neutral Sake taste neither sweet nor dry, but this does not mean they have no flavor. Far from it; Neutral Sake possess both characteristics - acids and unfermented sugars (as well as esters and phenolic flavors), in a balancing act that walks a tightrope right down the center of your tongue, engaging more of your palate than a sweet or dry Sake might.

As popular as a sweet Nigori like Hakutsuru's Sayuri, or a refined, dry Onigoroshi like Wakatake Onikoroshi are, it's no wonder that the most popular Sake in America is a Neutral sake, Kikusui's Junmai Ginjo. By the way: If you wanted to offer three Sake for a group that has never tried Sake, those would have the highest odds of anyone off the street liking at least two - if not all three! While almost anyone is bound to like the gentle and smooth Kikusui JG, it doesn't make my Top 5, because plenty of superior neutral Sake exist. Without further delay, here are five in my personal favorite order:

5. SOTO Muroka Junmai Daiginjo
Coming in at the back of the pack, is SOTO, a private label brewed in Niigata, Japan. Niigata is known for having a superior terroir for delicate Sake. Full disclosure, I have a friend who works for this U.S. private label, but that just means I've gotten to drink a lot of this Sake, and it hasn't grown old. The two words I would use to describe it are SUBTLE and BALANCED. Classic markers of a Daiginjo yeast, such as melon, Asian pear, or other fruit are all hidden under a thick, round layer of rice umami. The slight, rice-colored tint, comes from the Muroka (no carbon fining) style that helps balance the acidity while also adding body.
Though it can pair with bigger dishes like grilled white meat, oysters or uni, I would recommend this Sake with a nice, thick belly cut of Salmon or Yellowtail sashimi.

4. Kikumasamune Kimoto Daiginjo 
Depending on your palate or what food you pair this with, it may taste semi-sweet or semi-dry, but for my brain, this floral, lightly-fruity, aruten (contains "Brewer's Alcohol") Daiginjo is one of the most undervalued and delicious neutral Sake out there! Brewed with the more time-consuming and laborious Kimoto (original) method for a fuller, round mouth-feel that sits heavy on the palate. This Sake uses "Brewer's Alcohol", a Japanese neutral grain spirit to tamp down the cereal flavor common to most Junmai Sake. It also opens up more of the esters hidden within the amino acids created by fermentation for an explosion of fruit and flowers. I would enjoy this with traditional Japanese food, especially mixed tempura, Kakiage Udon, or a semi-soft buffalo cheese.

3. Ohkagura Honjozo
Ohkagura is a kind of Futsushu (the "Table wine" of Sake) called Honjozo. This extremely versatile Sake also using "Brewer's Alcohol" to mask the ricey-ness and highlight the flavors created by the yeast, but unlike the refined Daiginjos above, this has a much lower polish, retaining more of the rice fat and proteins. Less polish means less time and less rice per bottle, making it much less expensive to produce. It also helps Ohkagura pair better with foods that have more fat and protein. This Sake is a real crowd-pleaser, and perfect for large parties or people on a budget who still want to enjoy a quality drink with their meal. I have served this to first-timers, Sake aficionados, even celebrities, and it never fails to please! Try this with fried rice containing your favorite protein, a soft cheese spread, Brie, Camembert, or caviar!

2. Born Gold Muroka Junmai Daiginjo
Like SOTO, this Muroka Junmai Daiginjo has a superbly-balanced, rich, and full-bodied flavor. That is where the similarities end, however. This Sake is also a Nama-chozo, meaning it isn't pasteurized until bottling, allowing it to develop a more effervescent mouthfeel and aroma. Like the Kikumasamune Daiginjo, this Sake is still relatively undervalued for its excellent quality. The flavor, appearance, and presentation make it an excellent gift. Definitely pick up a bottle if you ever see it in a market or liquor store. The distributor recommends trying it with "dishes cooked with butter, cheese, and olive oil".

1. Seikyo "Takehara" Junmai
The Seikyo Takehara from the eponymous city in Hiroshima has everything I want from Sake. A savory backbone, delicate on the palate, and elegant like a ginjo. If every type of Sake were mapped out in concentric circles, this would be at the very center of the diagram. The importer describes the flavor as "hints of honey and brown butter" and recommends "fried oysters, katsu, or yakitori". I would add to that, the fullness of the body engages your whole palate before quickly dissipating, making it an ideal palate-cleanser when sampling a variety of Japanese dishes. Seikyo Takehara is like the Sake Kikusui JG wants to be when it grows up.

What do you think of these? Think I missed your favorite? Keep in mind I'm only choosing from Sake available in the U.S., but I would love to hear from you! Questions and comments are welcome below. For a list of my Top 5 Dry Sake, Click Here.

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