Browsing London Sake’s expansive range, it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by choice. Sometimes, even for an experienced nihonshu connoisseur, the best approach is simply to choose a bottle with a beautifully, striking label and hope that the contents measure up. This tactic (which has generally served me well with both unfamiliar sake and craft beer purchases in the past) goes a way to explaining how I ended up in the possession of Tamagawa’s 2019 ‘Red Label’ Heirloom Yamahai Genshu.
Whilst I’ll let my tasting notes do the talking, I wanted to open by saying I was certainly not disappointed! Of course I was already aware of Kinoshita’s international reputation as one of Kyoto Prefectures most revered breweries, and that it resides under the proud stewardship of Japan’s first foreign toji (Birmingham-born Philip Harper), so perhaps not going in totally blind here!
However, this was to be my first sampling of any of the brewery’s produce, so it’s always particularly rewarding be completely blown away by a unique and beautifully crafted sake that drops into your ‘top ten’ or however it may be you classify favourites.
Appearance: Very pronounced yellow-green lemony hue, perhaps even slightly hazy body.
Nose: Marked caramel-like sweetness apparent well before bringing the glass close to the nose. There is also a waft of straw / farmhouse aroma, emphasising the ‘natural, ambient yeasts.’ Even at fridge-chilled temperature, this is a very potent sake.
Palate: Slightly oily mouthfeel opens up this extremely complex sake, driven by a full-bodied, boozy richness. There are few fruity or ricey characteristics here, instead the flavour is robust, nutty and almost malty, with just a touch of soy-like saltiness. Red Label concludes with a long, earthy finish and distinct acidic tang.
Though my own experience has been overwhelming positive, it’s only fair to admit that few nihonshus are likely to divide consumer opinion quite like Red Label. The unusual combination of rich, mushroom and hazelnut notes and tart yamahai and genshu (undiluted) qualities will certainly prove too contradictory for some palates.
Yet, for those who can appreciate it (and some of that may be down to choosing the right dish to accompany it – try something salty and grilled!), it truly is the stimulating ‘robust explosion of flavour’ that the label proclaims. Fans of koshu (aged sake) will find much to enjoy here, although those stuck in a daiginjo rut may find taking a punt on Red Label a truly liberating sake experience.
Brewery: Kinoshita Brewing Co., Ltd (Tamagawa)
Classification: Yamahai genshu junmai
Rice polishing ratio: 66%
Bio: Jordan Smithcroft is a Manchester-based healthcare worker and certified Sake Sommelier Association (SSA) sommelier with an interest in Japanese culture, including Studio Ghibli, Haruki Murakami and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Having travelled to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto in 2019, he hopes to return to see more of Japan in the near future.