Toronto’s Distillery District, located on the site of the now defunct Gooderham & Worts Distillery (which was once the largest whisky producer in the world), is a charming enclave of restored brick buildings housing upscale boutiques, cafes and galleries. When Ontario Spring Water Sake Co. opened in April, it also became home to Canada’s third sake brewery, the first on the eastern coast of North America.
Housed in an industrial building dating back to the 1850s, Ontario Spring Water Sake Co.’s base of operations functions as both a brewing facility and retail shop. The space itself is stunning, with meter-thick limestone walls and 12 meter vaulted ceilings. The brewing area — equipped with three 100-liter stainless steel tanks and a cedar koji-making room built by a local sauna maker — is visible through large windows, and visitors can watch all of the action from a small tasting bar near the entrance.
Like a lot of North Americans, owner Ken Valvur discovered sake through sushi. Valvur, a Canadian with the smooth voice of a radio announcer and a genteel demeanor, started out in banking before founding the sushi company Bento Nouveau and consulting for the LCBO, the governmental organization that regulates the import and sale of alcohol in the province of Ontario. He fell in love with sake after a visit to Miyasaka Shuzo, the maker of Masumi sake in Nagano Prefecture.
“I was given a sip from a long ladle of namazake (unpasteurized sake), and it was a revelation. My eyes rolled, it was so delicious,” he tells me as I look around the brewery.
That’s when Valvur got the idea to brew sake in Canada. Sake aficionados abroad crave namazake, which is valued for its fresh, lively character, but it’s notoriously difficult to import from Japan.
Valvur teamed up with Wakayama native Kazuto Hayashi, who had worked as a liaison for sake giant Gekkeikan, and they hired veteran tōji (master brewer) Yoshiko Takahashi, one of Japan’s first female brewers, from Nagano. Their line of sake is called Izumi, the Japanese word for “water spring.”
The rice used to make the sake comes from California, while the water is sourced from northern Ontario, about 200 km outside of Toronto.
“The first thing that Takahashi-san did when she arrived was taste the water,” Hayashi says. “She was very happy because she thought it was similar to Fushimi-mizu,” he continues, referring to the soft water from the famed sake-brewing region of Fushimi in western Japan.
Ontario Spring Water’s brews are junmai (pure rice), unpasteurized and largely non-charcoal-filtered. Hoping to appeal to North American palates, Valvur and his team have veered from traditional styles, creating brews that can serve as a bridge between sake and wine.
“There is always a bit of skepticism from Japanese consumers, but for most people it’s an eye-opener,” Valvur explains. “Izumi is made principally for a local market, to be enjoyed with many kinds of local foods.”
The brews are indeed unconventional. Bold and fruit-driven, they display a winelike character with prominent sweetness and acidity. In one respect, however, Ontario Spring Water Sake Co. is upholding a tradition that has been a part of sake brewing from the beginning — by making sake for the local community.