When Japan’s central government placed Tokyo under a fresh (fourth) state of emergency on July 12, the city responded with a collective groan. After merely two weeks of loosened restrictions in late June, the ban on alcohol service at bars and restaurants in the capital locked back into place.
Tuesday brought more glum news. Originally scheduled to expire on Aug. 22, the state of emergency was extended and expanded once again, prolonging restrictions until mid-September.
Despite the current administration’s best efforts to turn me into a teetotaler, I haven’t given up drinking. Instead of imbibing at bars and restaurants, though, I’ve been ordering booze online and trying to support Japanese producers from home.
Fortunately, many excellent sake producers now sell directly to consumers. Generally speaking, buying directly from breweries allows these businesses to retain a higher percentage of revenue — a good thing, if we want them to stay in business.
Located in Fukushima Prefecture, Niida Honke has been at the forefront of the movement to produce sake using local rice grown without agrichemicals for more than a decade. The brewery’s refined Odayaka brand was my “epiphany sake” — the brew that opened my eyes to the possibilities of the drink and set me on the path to writing about the sake world. Niida Honke’s Shizenshu Junmai Ginjo (¥1,760) is a favorite in my home. A fruity number with zippy acidity, its balance of ricey sweetness, umami and pleasantly weighty body pairs with a wide range of cuisines. Orders over ¥6,000 ship for free.
Legendary brew master Naohiko Noguchi has been making sake in Ishikawa Prefecture for more than 70 years. In 2017, the octogenarian came out of his second retirement to launch his own brewery, Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute. A two-bottle set of Noguchi’s marvelously complex Honjozo Muroka Nama Genshu 2019 and Junmaishu Muroka Nama Genshu 2019 provides a wonderful introduction to the brewery’s signature style, affordably priced at ¥5,500. Free shipping to locations in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu is an added bonus.
Nihonshu Oendan takes a unique approach to making sake by partnering with breweries in six prefectures. Its concept is to promote terroir and regional traditions, and each product bears the name of the area of production. Early August saw the release of a limited-edition summer sampler (¥5,990), which comes with six 180-milliliter bottles that offer a taste of the entire lineup.
Recently, the company began working with local producers to create monthly food-and-sake pairing kits (from ¥6,490 for one portion) that feature regional specialties. This month’s set comes with Nihonshu Oendan’s bright and juicy Noto sake from Ishikawa Prefecture, paired with sazae (turban shell) prepared three ways, as well as an assorted platter of five kinds of fresh fish from the Noto Peninsula caught in the morning just before shipping.
However, as much as I love sake, there are days when I crave something stronger. Having limited talent as a home mixologist, I ordered a few bottled cocktails from the Bar Times Store, where the lineup includes intoxicating elixirs created by some of Tokyo’s top bartenders.
First, I tried the Ori-Gin A(B)Viation (¥3,960), a fresh take on an Aviation cocktail made with The Japanese Craft Gin Mizuho 170, a limited-edition spirit from Mizuho Shuzo in Okinawa. The recipe, developed by barman Soran Nomura of Fuglen Tokyo, shows off the gin’s delicate tropical flavors of pineapple, shīkuwāsā citrus leaf and Okinawan pepper. Served with a splash of soda and a squirt of lemon, this makes a lovely summer aperitif.
The Bartender Craft Cacao & Hoji Negroni (¥3,000) is a twist on a classic Negroni from Shuzo Nagumo of bar Memento Mori. Evocatively perfumed with cacao nibs from Tanzania, the drink’s sweet-bitter flavors are enhanced by the smoky aromas of gin infused with hōjicha (roasted green tea). Nagumo recommends drinking it on the rocks with an orange peel garnish, but it’s also terrific poured over vanilla ice cream for a decadent affogato-esque digestif-dessert.
Although it’s uncertain when alcohol will return to bars and restaurants in Tokyo, these online options will keep me in my cups all through the summer.
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