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New to sake? Here’s where to start

by Melinda Joe

“Is it always this crowded?” I ask a happi-coat-clad clerk at the Meishu Center sake shop in Hamamatsucho, as she pours me three glasses of sake from hefty, 1.5-liter isshōbin bottles.

“Well, it depends on the day, but Friday nights are usually busy,” she answers, before adding, “It gets even more packed later.”

Squeezing closer to my drinking companion to make room for another customer at the standing-only bar, I glance at the clock on the wall. It’s only 6:15 p.m.

What’s surprising is the fact that the Meishu Center (ameblo.jp/meishu-center) is not a bar per se, rather a retail shop that doubles as a sake promotional center and also offers tastings. Although a major renovation two years ago has made the Meishu Center look more like a bar — the tiny, Showa-style tasting counters have been replaced with blond wood and a stylish display case for bottles — the space retains an officelike feel.

Nevertheless, the Meishu Center remains one of the best places to try a lot of sake at exceptionally reasonable prices. The shop regularly stocks roughly 100 brews from around 40 breweries, all on display in three large refrigerators and available for tasting. Generous 60-ml pours start at ¥200, and the three-sake tasting flights, available from ¥500, are a great option for sake novices. Simply pick one of the eight sets on the menu (in both Japanese and English), and the staff will guide you through each.

Alternatively, you can build your own tasting flight, or tell the staff your preferences and let them do it for you. When you purchase three glasses of sake (or liqueurs such as umeshu and yuzushu), you get ¥100 off your tab. The brews are organized according to region, and each bottle bears a tag listing the price per glass and per bottle, along with the producer name, region, rice variety and other relevant information.

If you don’t want to make the trek to Hamamatsucho, there are several other options for serious sake tasting in Tokyo. The esteemed sake exporter Hasegawa Saketen (www.hasegawasaketen.com) runs five retail shop/tasting bar hybrids all over the city. While the tasting menu is much more limited, the shops offer a nice selection of trendy brands such as Juyondai (Yamagata Prefecture) and Toyo Bijin (Yamaguchi Prefecture) for around ¥400 per glass.

Those who prefer the dim lights and convivial atmosphere of a proper bar should check out Kuri sake bar in Ginza (www7a.biglobe.ne.jp/kurisake), which features a weekly changing menu of around 150 varieties of sake. Glasses come in three sizes — 60 ml, 120 ml and 180 ml, starting at ¥250 — and the sake sommeliers are happy to help you navigate the menu to create a tasting flight. There’s a cover charge of ¥800.

More recently, I’ve become a fan of Nihonshu Stand Moto (ameblo.jp/shinjuku-moto), which opened a year and a half ago and stocks hard-to-find labels from artisanal producers such as Kawatsuru (Kagawa Prefecture). Thanks to its curious location in the basement of the Hakuho Building in Shinjuku 5-chome, Moto has the hidden feel of a sake speakeasy. For about ¥2,000 per person, you can get a few brews, served in adorable little cone-shaped glasses, and a few small plates of tasty sake snacks. But go early if you want to make sure to get a spot at the bar: Just like the Meishu Center , it fills up by 6:15 on Friday nights.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.