Editor's Note: Welcome to Sake School! Your professor is Monica Samuels, who trained with American Sommelier Association and the Sake Education Council. She is a Sake Educator for New York Vintners in Tribeca. Before her current role as Sake Ambassador for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York, Monica was the National Sake Sommelier for the SUSHISAMBA restaurant group.
Water isn't taken for granted in Japanese culture. There are bars in Tokyo that offer over twenty types of bottled water. Tetsubins—cast iron pots for boiling water for tea; believed to create the ideal pH level —can cost upwards of $2,000 in Japan. Sake is no exception; water is an important (and valued) ingredient.
There's no appellation system with sake, so ingredients are not legally required to come from the prefecture where the sake is made. But for practical reasons, the water in sake is mostly sourced from local wells. The stability of well water is prized for creating consistency in sake brewing. Where great water sources are abundant, you'll find more sake breweries.
What makes good water for sake? Some minerals such as iron and manganese have adverse affects on sake quality and speed its aging process. The better regions for brewing sake in Japan have water with less than .02mg/L of both iron and manganese. On the other hand, magnesium, calcium, phosphates, and potassium are great for sake, and are valued because they help supporting yeast and koji.
Where can you find the best water for sake?
Commonly referred to as Japan's "snow country," parts of Niigata receive over 30 feet of snow per year. This abundance of snow melts into pristine water ideal for creating the light, delicate style of Niigata sakes. The constant snowfall also is believed to help purify the air, ridding it of impurities that might negatively affect sake production. Niigata currently has 96 active sake producers, many of which export to the US. Some to look for include Hakkaisan, Yoshinogawa*, and Kirinzan*.
Surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges (the Zao range, Mt. Chokai, and Dewa Sanzan), and home to 100 onsen (hot springs), the water in Yamagata is known for its minerals. Many believe these minerals give the hot springs healing properties. They also result in richly flavored and textured sake. Yamagata sakes available in the US include Dewazakura, Ura Gasanryu, and Jokigen*.
Nada is famous for its hard water, which has a high calcium and phosphate content that helps to speed fermentation and create full bodied sakes. The water is called Miya-Mizu and is originates from underground streams that flow through Mt. Rokko. One third of all sake in Japan comes from Nada, predominantly from large-scale breweries that are known for producing huge quantities of affordable sake. Some that export to the US include Hakushika, Kenbishi, and Hakutsuru*.
The Japanese characters for Fushimi actually mean "hidden water," describing the underground spring water responsible for making this district the second-largest sake producing area in Japan. The water in Fushimi is extremely soft, resulting in gentle, smooth sakes in contrast to the drier, robust sakes of the Nada area. Notable sake producers from Fushimi include Tama no Hikari, Gekkeikan*, and Tsuki no Katsura.
The water in Hiroshima is extraordinarily soft, which can create its own set of problems. Since there's so little mineral content in Hiroshima's water, yeast and koji take a long time to activate, which can lead to contamination in the wrong hands. Today, Hiroshima brewers pride themselves on extreme skill in slow, cold temperature fermentation, resulting in soft and gently sweet flavors. Hiroshima sakes to look for include Fukucho (one of the few sake breweries with a female brewmaster!), Ugo no Tsuki, and Kamoizumi.
Technique is ultimately the key to great sake, but the water used definitely deserves your attention as you taste. Sake's other ingredients may come from anywhere, but paying attention to the water in sake is an excellent opportunity to experience sake's true terroir.
Disclosure: Sake breweries marked with asterisks are part of the sake portfolio I manage for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York and and Lauber Imports of NY.