For many, rice has become nearly synonymous with Yamagata as for centuries the remote mountainous prefecture has remained the backbone of the Japanese rice industry and a staple in the culinary heart of Japan. Historically, due to the abundance of high-quality rice produced by this region, cities in Yamagata such as Sakata benefited immensely as the rice industry indulged the economy and contributed to the wealth of countless families and clans. One of these families was the Honma family, who were said to have grown even more wealthy than the feudal lords during the Edo Period thanks to the Kitamaebune rice trade.
Today, while rice can of course be eaten plain or turned into a number of iconic Japanese dishes such as sushi, omurice, and takikomi gohan, under the crafty hands of some of Japan’s finest artisans, rice can completely lose shape and take a new form as Japan’s favorite beverage… Sake!
With Japan’s love of sake today, it’s hard to believe that just 800 years ago that even just a sip of sake was considered a once-in-a-lifetime delicacy among the general public. Meanwhile today, essentially any bar, izakaya, pub, or even convenience store in Japan will have a number of fine sake brands readily available, all with their own unique flavors, characteristics, and intricacies. However, despite all 47 prefectures of Japan proudly producing their own brands and brews of the delicious liquor, there is only one prefecture that has been designated its own official Geographic Indication (GI) that is recognized by The World Trade Federation. And that prefecture is none other than Yamagata!
Some of the vast rice fields of Yamgata
What is a GI?
A GI or “Geographic Indication” is essentially a type of protective trademark used to certify that the quality, character, reputation, and unique features of a certain product are attributed directly to the geographical origin of the product. Such famous examples worldwide include Champagne and Darjeeling Tea of which can each only be produced respectively in the Champagne region of France and in the Darjeeling foothills of India due to the unique environmental conditions that cannot be replicated anywhere else. While there are many brands and producers that sell their products under these GI labels, they are only able to do so if indeed their product originates from each of these designated places. While anyone could, in theory, create and sell similar products of lesser quality, without the official GI recognition they would be considered inauthentic and hence the value would decrease.
Sake tasting near Tsuruoka Station
What is Yamagata Sake?
Until roughly 30 years ago, Yamagata Sake wasn’t the household name that it is today, much less a regional name in the industry. Post-war, many cheap, mid-tier quality foreign alcohols such as whiskey, beer, and wine flooded the domestic Japanese market, and small hometown producers that had been able to get by brewing inexpensive, low-quality sake began to struggle to stay afloat. To combat this, many sake producers all over Japan attempted to make the switch to producing high-quality sake for the sophisticated, upper-class consumer. However unfortunately many still found it hard to survive in the modern economy and many more were forced to leave the industry altogether.
What made Yamagata’s approach to the sake crisis truly revolutionary was the joint collaboration between the public and private sectors launched in 1987 under the banner “Team Yamagata”. Team Yamagata was a unique, innovative approach to tackling the sake industry that had never before been attempted. The project established the Yamagata Brewing Research Society of which served the purpose of revitalizing the sake industry through joint collaboration on technological advancement as well as collective resource sharing. The shift went from quantity to quality and for the first time in Japanese history, rather than hide away industry secrets, regional sake brewers were openly sharing their knowledge and experience with one another to help lift the entire region up together as a whole.
Through the hard work and collaborative efforts of some of Yamagata’s finest artisans, over the span of three decades, Yamagata Sake went from being just some common run-of-the-mill booze to some of the highest quality alcohol produced in all of Japan. Since 2004, Yamagata Sake has consistently won the largest amount of gold medals every year at the Japan Sake Awards and 78% of all the sake produced in Yamagata is considered premium grade, as compared with the nationwide average of just 34%. With the sharp increase of quality and unique collaborative efforts of which Yamagata Sake achieved such success, it was only a matter of time before Yamagata Sake was finally awarded a GI in 2015.
What makes Yamagata Sake Special?
While the story behind Yamagata Sake is indeed incredible, the true reason behind Yamagata Sake’s success is simply that its taste is like no other! Yamagata Sake is famous for being light, soft, clear, and smooth to drink as well as having a pleasantly sweet aroma that is inviting and gentle on the palette. The subtlety of Yamagata Sake’s flavor profile is known to pair well with any number of dishes both Japanese and Western style, and can enhance any meal by bringing out hidden flavors and aromas that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The secret however behind Yamagata Sake’s refined savour is the high-quality rice that has been produced in Yamagata for centuries and continues to define this region to this day. While it’s true that today rice is grown all over Japan and all over the world, what determines the quality of the rice is actually largely dependent on the soil in which it is grown. As the name suggests Yamagata (“Yama” meaning mountain) is primarily covered by pristine mountain peaks, most of which are actually dormant or partially active volcanoes such as Mount Zao. The nutrient-rich volcanic soil deposited thousands of years ago in addition to the clean, crystal-clear waters that melt down from the glacial peaks in the spring and summertime have cultivated not only an environment that rice can thrive in Yamagata, but one that brings out unique and spectacular attributes in the sake it produces that cannot be found anywhere else in Japan.
Sake Factory Tours in Yamagata
With so many different types of sake from so many reputable and celebrated craftsmen here in Yamagata, it's hard to go wrong when choosing a sake. However, with such a wide array of options, it can be difficult to know where to start when first trying Yamagata Sake. Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of some of our personal recommendations that we think offer a good taste of what Yamagata has to offer!
Otokoyama: Otokoyama was founded over 200 years ago and prides itself in taking inspiration for its cool clear sake from the pristine unspoiled nature that has blessed Yamagata since the dawn of time. Otokoyama uses the clean natural underground waters of Mount Zao to produce a variety of sake products however their sake is best characterized as dry and crisp.
Shuho: Shuho Sake Brewery was born out of humble origins and was established in 1890 in a small mountain village at the foot of Mount Zao. Shuho specializes in Daiginjo sake which is made from an extremely highly polished grain of rice that removes at least 50% of the outer grain of rice before entering the fermentation process. Due to the arduous process of refining the rice into sake as well as the small margin for error, Daiginjo sake is often referred to as the pinnacle of the brewmaster’s technique and is considered premium sake. To assure that only the top-level products leave their distillery and make their way to consumers all across Japan, Shuho polishes over 10 types of rice in-house and sources only natural, local ingredients. While Shuho produces a number of high-quality sake products, typically their flavor profile can generally be defined as a delicate balance of umami and acidity and are best served cold.
Kotobuki Toraya: While discussing the sake made by Kotobuki Toraya, the term “terroir” is certain to come up as it is one of the major philosophies behind their brand. “Terroir” is a French term that is used to describe the unique geographical and environmental factors that influence the flavor and quality of a product and is one of the key elements of GI. Kotobuki Toraya has been in operation for nearly 300 years and the water used to produce their sake flows directly from the deep underground wells at the base of Mount Zao. They specialize in Ginjo Junmai which is made from rice with 40% of the shell removed and has a light tangy flavor that has a strong fragrance.
Dewazakura: Dewazakura Sake was founded in 1892 in Tendo City, surrounded by the towering mountains of the Yamagata Basin and reaching sultry heats in the summer. This ideal climate has made the city a hub for rice and fruit production of which have been crafted into deliciously coveted alcohol for centuries. Dewazakura specializes in Ginjo sake which uses rice that has been polished to at least 60% and has a very light, airy taste with hints of fruity undertones.
Mitobe: The Mitobe Sake Brewery traces back to 1898 and specializes in Junmai or “pure rice” sake, a type of sake that uses no additives such as sugar or additional alcohol. These sakes have a full body and a slightly acidic flavor and are known to pair particularly well with heavy dishes such as red meats or rich western pastas. In addition to their Junmai alcohols, they have a number of unique products that are inspired by the colors of the rainbow such as a red Yamagata safflower sake, a blue indigo sake, and a green koji dust sake.
Interested in learning more about Yamagata Sake and trying some during your visit to Yamagata? Try some for yourself in our Shonai Sake Tasting in Tsuruoka City or by partaking in our Downtown Bar Hopping Tour in Yamagata City!