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Nada vs Fushimi sake tasting

| Brad Smith

Terroir is a French word meaning a sense of place. The term is often associated with wines from the great regions of the world. The unique traits of each area often mark the wines with specific tasting characteristics, giving them this sense of place.

But does sake exhibit a sense of terroir?

In the case of Nada and Fushimi, Japan’s two most famous brewing centers, the answer is a resounding yes.

bottles of sake from Kobe and Kyoto with sushi
Exploring Fushimi and Nada sake with traditional Japanese cuisine.

The Nada and Fushimi sake regions

Nada and Fushimi are two titans of sake brewing. These two small regions produce roughly 40% of the sake brewed in Japan, and they’re home to both the largest breweries in the country and some of the most iconic.

Although Fushimi and Nada are practically neighbors, their sake are distinct from one another.

Let’s explore how these two regions rose to prominence and why their sake tastes so distinct.

Nada sake

Nada is located in Hyogo prefecture, in and around Kobe. It’s a densely populated area between the Mt. Rokko and Osaka Bay.

Nada consists of three wards of Kobe and two wards in Nishinomiya. From west to east, they are Nishi-Go, Mikage-Go, Uozaki-Go, Nishinomiya-Go, and Imazu-Go. Collectively these five wards are often called Nadagogo.

Approximately a quarter of all sake brewed in Japan comes from Hyogo, with most of this coming from Nada. A lot of this production volume is futsushu, a lower-grade table sake. However, a great deal of elite sake is produced here, as well.

Sake breweries have been established here for centuries and are becoming successful for a variety of reasons.

One of them was the presence of the Mt. Rokko to the north. Frigid winter winds from the mountains, called Rokko-oroshi, kept the breweries cold during the traditional brewing season. The chilly air helps reduce the risk of sake spoilage. Today, this isn’t as important, but before temperature control technology, it was a requirement.

Mt. Rokko view
The beautiful view from the Rokko mountains in Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture.

Another key to Nada’s historical success was access to customers. Nada is a populous area. Brewers had an advantage in getting their sake to other large markets. A large port allowed shipping to Edo (Tokyo), and proximity to Osaka and Kyoto also fueled growth.

Hyogo Prefecture is also a great place to grow rice. The king of sake rice, Yamadanishiki, was developed here, and the best paddies are located just over the Rokko mountains. Good rice has given the sake breweries of Nada a competitive advantage.

All of these factors helped Nada become the most powerful sake brewing region in Japan. But the most famous reason for Nada’s success lies underground: superb water.

Miyamizu water

It starts with copious snowmelt and rain over the Rokko mountains, which then percolates into the ground. Eventually, it’s pulled from the ground as excellent well water. Breweries across Nada had their water sources, and it was all probably pretty good.

But around 1840, it was discovered that the water from Nishinomiya was truly exceptional for sake brewing. This Nishinomiya water would eventually be called Miyamizu. It wasn’t long before brewers across Nada adopted Miyamizu for mashing.

The superior sake produced by Miyamizu solidified Nada as the top sake brewing region in Japan.

Miyamizu also became certified as one of Japan’s “Selected 100 exquisite and well-conserved waters” in 1985.

Fushimi sake

In the city of Kyoto, not far from Nada, lies the ward of Fushimi. If Nada is considered the king of sake brewing, then the Fushimi sake district would be the queen.

Kyoto sake accounts for over 15% of Japan’s total production volume. Most of this comes from the ward of Fushimi. This is more than double the output of the next biggest sake producer: Niigata.

Like Nada, most of the production volume from Fushimi is lower-grade futsushu, and similarly, the majority of this comes from a few massive producers. Regardless, some of the most iconic brands, big and small, call Fushimi home.

Fushimi’s rise to sake brewing fame also came about for similar reasons to Nada. It had a thirsty local market, easy access to Osaka and Tokyo, prolific local rice production, and cold winter temperatures.

And like Nada, Fushimi was blessed with outstanding water.

Fushimizu

In fact, Fushimi’s water is legendary and is often referred to as Fushimizu. The ward used to be its own village. And the original spelling translated to hidden water. This is due to the high number of springs in the area.

Seven of these springs have an especially elite reputation and are called the “Seven Wells of Fushimi.”

Of these, Gokosui from the Gokonomiya Shrine is the most famous. Brewers have long prayed at the shrine to improve their sake, and countless others have sipped the aromatic Gokosui for its purported health benefits.

Fushimi’s water is so good that it helped turn the area into a major brewing center.

Spring water at a Kyoto shrine.
Gokosui water at the Gokonomiya Shrine. This is the holy grail for fans of Fushimi sake.

Soft vs hard water

The importance of water in sake brewing cannot be overstated. It makes up about 80% of the volume in a finished bottle of sake and has a significant effect on the brewing process.

What makes water suitable for sake brewing is a complex subject. In general, it should contain beneficial nutrients and minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphoric acid, and good brewing water will also be free of iron and manganese.

Pretty much any sake brewery will be using water like this. The concentration of calcium and magnesium in water is an often-cited variable among breweries. Hard water has an abundance of these compounds compared to soft water which has less calcium and magnesium.

Miyamizu is considered hard water (kosui). Hard water promotes vigorous and rapid fermentation which often results in a dry and firm sake, a generally true characteristic of Nada sake.

Fushimi’s water is softer (nansui). A fermentation using soft water will generally take more time resulting in sake that is often sweeter and more supple.

Fushimizu is considered medium-hard water. It also has a naturally delicate flavor and soft texture. Sake from Fushimi often features both of these characteristics.

These days, sake brewers know how to treat the water in several ways that will alter the fermentation process and the resulting sake.

The hard water of Nada and the softer water of Fushimi certainly impact the flavor profiles of their sake. Their brewers have access to amazing water which produces flavorful, unique sake straight from the well.

Fushimi and Nada sake both exhibit terroir, and this has everything to do with their water.

Nada and Fushimi sake characteristics

Nada sake is famous for being dry, firm, umami-driven, and acidic. Aromatic intensity is often somewhat subduedas well. This style of sake is sometimes called masculine (otokozake).

Fushimi sake, on the other hand, is said to be soft, fruity, slightly sweet, and aromatic. These prettier sake are often called feminine (onnazake).

Grades like junmai, honjozo, and their tokubetsu variations tend to adhere to these characteristics the most. Conversely, these stylistic generalizations tend to be less pronounced on higher-grade sake like daiginjo and junmai daiginjo.

And there are always many exceptions in the world of sake. Today this is especially true since brewers can utilize a variety of yeast types, rice, and milling rates to create any flavor profile they choose.

The main constant in all of this is the choice of water. Miyamizu from Nada is adept at producing bright, minerally sake, and the water from Fushimi is well-suited for making silky, mild, and fruity sake.

Recommended Nada and Fushimi sake

There are many great brands to explore from Fushimi and Nada. Below is a selection of outstanding sake that exemplifies their regional characteristics.

Sawanotsuru “Jitsuraku”

A bottle of rice wine and grilled mackerel
Sawanotsuru sake and saba are a delicious pairing.

Sawanotsuru is a classic Nada brewery that’s been around since 1717. They mostly brew junmai-shu, often with traditional techniques.

Sawanotsuru “Jitsuraku” boasts Yamadanishiki from the Jitsuraku area of Yokawa-Cho. This area grows some of the best rice in the country. It’s good enough to name a brand after.

Elite Yamadanishiki and the old-school kimoto brewing method yield an earthy sake with bright acidity and loads of complexity.

Sawanotsuru “Jitsuraku” is clear, with a light yellow color. It’s fairly aromatic with a nutty and savory profile. Notes include almond, dried flowers, and miso.

On the palate, “Jitsuraku” is dry with a bright finish. The flavors are umami-driven but not aggressive or heavy. Tasting notes include brown rice, chestnut, golden raisin, and kabocha.

In many ways, this is a textbook Nada sake, and perhaps the best part is that it's relatively inexpensive.

You can enjoy this sake at a wide range of temperatures. It shows well from cold to slightly chilled. Serving Sawanotsuru warm is also a fun option, especially when it’s chilly outside.

Sawanotsuru “Jitsuraku” pairs with a wide range of dishes. This is a great sake to enjoy at an izakaya. It’s gentle enough to compliment all but the most delicate types of sushi and sashimi. It will shine with eel, mackerel, and salmon. Cooked classics like hamachi kama and chicken karaage are also great combos with Sawanotsuru.

Kenbishi “Mizuho”

A bottle of Kenbishi “Mizuho” and bullseye sake cup
The deep color of Kenbishi hints at its earthy and rich flavor.

Kenbishi is the oldest sake brand and has been around since 1505. They are one of the best sake breweries in Kobe but quite secretive about their methods.

“Mizuho” is a junmai that uses the yamahai fermentation starter method. This produces an earthy sake with more acidity. Kenbishi then ages this sake for between two to eight years before blending it.

That’s the recipe for an umami-bomb with a lot of complexity!

Kenbishi has a golden color and a fragrant aroma. It’s funky with earthy notes of salty cheese and kombu. There’s also a touch of honey and chestnut on the nose.

On the palate, Kenbishi is slightly dry, with a big body and a sour finish. There’s a touch of bitterness at the end, too. The flavors are rich with tasting notes that include shiitake, roasted plantain, sour cream, dark and milk chocolate, toasted pineapple, and flat lemon-lime soda.

Throw in some sherry-like flor flavors, and there aren’t many sake like this one.

Overall, Kenbishi is incredibly complex. The more you taste, the more you’ll discover. But it’s powerfully earthy and not for everyone.

The aging regimen for Kenbishi “Mizuho” is pretty unique and is one of the reasons it tastes so earthy. It also makes it a good candidate for aging at home. When stored properly, this sake will develop more umami and can be stored for a decade or more.

Kenbishi can be served at a wide range of temperatures, from cold to warm, but if served too hot, it does get sharp and boozy.

Smaller traditional cups like ochoko are great for taming this wild Nada sake. They bring out more sweetness as well. Wine glasses will highlight the aroma and structure better and make Kenbishi taste dryer. Lastly, this golden and aromatic sake is awesome in Burgundy glasses.

“Mizuho” shines when paired with rich or fatty foods like hamachi kama, saba shioyaki, nitsuke, yakitori, miso-based cuisine, and natto. Kenbishi is equally good with Western cuisine. It also rocks with pepperoni pizza or blue cheese, and it’s arguably better with grilled, fatty steak than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Fukuju “Blue”

A bottle of Kobe sake and a wine glass
Fukuju “Blue” is an elegant Kobe sake.

Fukuju is a popular brand from Kobe Shushinkan, which was founded in 1751. Today, they brew some of the more stylish and modern Nada sake.

Comparing Kenbishi and Fukuju together, it might seem hard to believe they’re from the same region. But Fukuju’s fresh, mineral-driven nature is a common marker for Nada sake.

Fukuju “Blue” has a gentle aroma featuring a pleasant mix of cantaloupe, peach, pineapple, and steamed rice notes.

The flavor of Fukuju “Blue” is significantly more mild and fruity than Kenbishi. This junmai ginjo is slightly dry on impact with a light body. Tasting notes include lemon and orange zest, green apple, Bartlett pear, sour rice, and a bit of brine.

Fukuju tastes best served from cold to slightly chilled. White wine glasses will highlight its elegance, while guinomi are a great choice if you prefer a traditional feel.

This is a great sake to enjoy with sushi and sashimi due to its gentle umami and bright, mineral finish. It complements just about anything from mild white fish to oilier types like saba and toro. Fukuju is also delicious with Western-style rolls, tempura, and salads.

Tozai “Living Jewel”

A bottle of Kyoto sake and a small cup
Tozai is a delicate and dry Fushimi junmai.

Kizakura is the brewery behind the Tozai brand. The company was founded in 1925, making it the youngest brewery on this list by far. But Kizakura has grown a lot in a relatively short amount of time. They’re currently one of the bigger sake breweries in Japan and are also the maker of Kyoto Beer.

“Living Jewel” is a junmai with a dry taste and a gentle disposition. It’s a classic Fushimi sake with a soft texture, a mild fruitiness, and a smooth finish.

The aroma of “Living Jewel” is restrained but pleasant. It features notes of melon, banana, steamed rice, raw oats, and chalk candy. The fruity-ricey aroma of Tozai leads to a dry taste and more steamed rice notes.

Tozai is an excellent sake for fans of dry and clean sake. When served chilled in a smaller cup, it practically disappears. A white wine glass is better for enjoying this Fushimi sake’s pretty aroma and supple texture. Warm Tozai has a nutty flavor and a bit more acidity, but overall, it’s probably best served cold to slightly chilled.

This is an excellent sake to serve with shellfish, mild-flavored types of sashimi and nigiri, and sushi rolls. Tozai also compliments mild cheese quite well.

Tsuki no Katsura “Yanagi”

A bottle of rice wine and nigiri sushi
“Yanagi” and nigiri are the ultimate dining experience.

Tsuki no Katsura is a brand from the famous brewery Masuda Tokubee Shoten. They were founded way back in 1675. The nigori and koshu styles are both said to have originated from this forward-thinking Kyoto sake brewery.

“Yanagi” is a beautiful sake. This junmai ginjo is aromatic, supple, and deeply fruity. The nose features notes of peach, green grape, bubblegum, and fresh flowers.

The flavor of “Yanagi” is no less stunning. It’s slightly dry with a voluptuous texture. The finish is soft and clean. Yanagi has rich, fruity flavors like strawberry, lemon zest, peaches and cream, and chalk candy. There are subtle hints of steamed rice and anise as well.

Overall, this feminine sake is easy to love. It’s textbook Fushimi, albeit on the rich and fruity end of the spectrum.

Some of the intense fruitiness of “Yanagi” will be tamed when served in smaller cups. White wine glasses are excellent for getting the full aromatic and textural experience. Either way, this Fushimi sake is amazing when served cold or slightly chilled.

“Yanagi” can also be served gently warmed. It brings out a deep citrusy flavor, along with green apple skin notes. The finish becomes brighter and slightly bitter. Heating removes much of the fragrance of “Yanagi,” so be careful not to serve it too hot.

“Yanagi” will work with many different types of sashimi and sushi. It’s also delicious with raw oysters. Additionally, heavier grilled dishes like hamachi kama and saba shioyaki are also good pairings with “Yanagi.”

Tamanohikari “Junmai Daiginjo”

a bottle of Kyoto sake and a wine glass
Tamanohikari sake is legendary and sophisticated.

Tamanohikari is another venerable Fushimi sake brewery. They were founded in 1673, a couple of years before Masuda Tokubee Shoten. And similarly, Tamanohikari is an innovative brewery. They revived the junmai style in 1964, and today, they only brew junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo sake.

Tamanohikari “Junmai Daiginjo” is brewed with Bizen Omachi sake rice. The brewery takes the extra step of milling this heirloom variety themselves. The results are a stunning mix of Fushimi and Omachi: silky texture, generous fruit, and herbal complexity.

The aroma of Tamanohikari is elegant, with notes of green apple, sakura, fresh flowers, bubblegum, mint, and steamed rice.

On the palate, it has a dry taste with a creamy texture. The finish is bright but super clean. Tamanohikari almost disappears after every sip. Tasting notes include cantaloupe, strawberry, roasted banana, green grape, basil, and anise.

This is a serious and complex junmai daiginjo. It balances fruity and floral qualities with hints of herbs and umami.

Tamanohikari is a wonderful example of Fushimi sake.

And like most junmai daiginjo sake, Tamanohikari shows best when served from cold to lightly chilled. It really shines when served in a wine glass. Smaller ochoko are great too, and will make for a more delicate tasting experience.

Tamanohikari is an excellent sake to pair with an omakase. It’s gentle enough to compliment mild white fish and shellfish, and the herbal and bright qualities of this sake also meld with rich items like fatty tuna and hikarimono. Salads are another fine match with Tamanohikari.

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