by Chevalier Eric Haun
The Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC, was thrilled to hold a Société Mondiale du Vin tasting of sake and special Japanese zensai (前菜, hors d’oeuvres) at Zeppelin on November 13, 2022. Upon arriving at the restaurant in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, we were greeted by “Bat” (as he is known), a certified sake sommelier and our sake expert for the tasting. The group was led to the main dining room which was reserved exclusively for our event.
Sake is a delicate and complex alcoholic beverage that has been enjoyed in Japan for centuries. Made from fermented rice, its flavor can range from light and floral to full-bodied and rich. With a wide range of styles and featuring subtle and nuanced flavors, sake is a true delicacy that is prized by connoisseurs around the world. Members and guests were eagerly anticipating the chance to experience some of Japan’s finest sakes that Bat had selected, accompanied by Zeppelin’s Japanese zensai.
Our first sake of the evening was a Rihaku Origin of Purity Namazake. Rihaku was founded in 1882 in Matsue City, in Shimane, Japan. In 1928 the distillery changed their name to Rihaku (the Japanese name for Li Bai), a famous Chinese poet from the 8th Century. Poet Li Bai was known to drink a big bottle of sake and write 100 poems at a time, creating a legacy of creativity that still inspires sake devotees (and poets) to this day. The Origin of Purity Namazake revealed intriguing notes of white blossom, cantaloupe, star anise, vanilla, and cream soda. It was paired with a light and refreshing Maguro Zukedon (marinated tuna rice) served in a tasting spoon. A Japanese favorite, it is made with fresh tuna, which is marinated in vinegar and sugar then served over a bed full of rice, creating a symphony of flavors and textures. The tuna was succulent and tender, with a delicate sweetness that was nicely highlighted by the satisfying chewiness of the rice.
Our second sake of the afternoon was a Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai. Founded in 1902, Nanbu Bijin or “Southern Beauty” is famous for seeking to create a clean and attractive sake apart from the rough and overly sweet sake popular in Japan in the early 20th Century. To highlight the legacy of Nanbu Bijin, the distiller continues to make some of the most renowned sakes in Japan. In 2017 the Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai won the Champion Sake award at IWC International Wine Challenge. It is famous for its rich but invigorating aromas, with floral notes and even elements of marshmallow. The Tokubetsu Junmai was served with a light shrimp ceviche. The shrimp gained a delicate sweetness against the backdrop of soy sauce and vinegar, with tangy lime juice adding refreshing counterpoint – a delicious pairing with the Tokubetsu Junmai.
The third sake was a fascinating Kunizakari Nigori Sake distilled by Nakano Shuzo. A rich and semi-sweet sake with a creamy, milk-like texture, it was served chilled and evoked the flavors of pears, mandarin oranges, black sesame, and a light roast. This sake was served with salmon yakitori. Grilled to perfection, the salmon was incredibly tender and juicy, with a delicate and flaky texture. It was accompanied by a sweet and savory glaze that added an extra layer of complexity to the dish. All agreed that this pairing was one of the highlights of the afternoon.
The final round of tasting was Shata Shuzo’s Tengumai 50 Junmai Daignjo. Established in 1823 near Kanazawa, Japan, Shata’s “Tengumai” label means “dancing Tengu.” (Tengu are popular creatures in Japanese folklore.) Thus, the label advances the idea that even after drinking Shanta’s sake, even the Tengu would want to dance. The sake produced a rich and semi-dry tasting experience and carried a full-bodied and refreshing flavor to the palate. The sake encompassed the essences of fruit with limes and mushrooms on the nose.
The Tengumai was paired with a course of Japanese nigiri sushi. “Nigiri” literally means “to grip” or “to hold” in Japanese and refers to the way the rice is formed into a compact shape by hand and then garnished with seafood. The plate of sushi was beautifully presented, with three pieces of delicate fish layered atop the hand-shaped balls of rice. The first piece, salmon, was a deep pink color and had a rich, buttery flavor. The second, a yellowtail fish, was delicate and slightly sweet, with a mild fatty richness. The third, tuna, was a deep red and had a more robust flavor, with a slight spicy kick.
It was an entertaining and educational afternoon filled with friendship, scrumptious zensai, and the joy of discovering new sakes. As the tasting came to a close, members and guests departed from Zeppelin with a newfound appreciation for the fine art of distilling world-class sakes. While the spring cherry blossoms might be the best-known Japanese feature in Washington, sake and zensai at Zeppelin may be the most delicious Japanese experience in the city. After a wonderful afternoon and the expertise of Bat, we look forward to returning soon to explore even more of the varied sakes and outstanding cuisine from the islands of Japan.