Kikusui Funaguchi: Can Do Sake


Ahhhh, sake. I’ll be honest – I know next to nothing about the stuff, other than the fact that I need to get to know it better. That said, one sake I’ve really been blown away by every time I’ve had over the past few years has been the canned sake from Japanese brewer Kikusui (interesting how the craft-sake-in-cans thing in Japan parallels the craft-beer-in-cans thing here in the states). Their most commonly found version – the yellow can – is the base Kikusui Funaguchi Honjozo Nama-sake. It’s joined by a longer-aged and more “refined” version in red; plus a once-a-year, freshly-harvested version in green. They’re all pretty spectacular – with a common backbone of lush, floral, tropical fruit – but there are enough distinctions among the three to make a side by side tasting really interesting. If you’re lucky enough to come across a can(s), these Kikusuis are a great way to explore distinctive sake at a low tariff – they’re typically $6-$10 retail depending on the type, and each can (at 19% alcohol) makes a nice serving for two people.

Kikusui Funaguchi SakeKikusui dates back to 1881 in the sake business – which makes them a youngster among Japan’s many historic sake brewers. The name Funaguchi is, as far as I can tell,  a trademarked name meant to communicate “raw sake on tap”- reinforcing the fact that this is a nama-sake – unpasteurized. Honjozo is a term that specifies level of refinement – typically 30% of the rice polished away (whereas more refined ginjo has at least 40% polished away, and the daiginjo at least 50%). The fresh harvest green can gets the designation shinmai, and the red (aged one year) is actually a ginjo rather than a honjozo, but still a nama-sake. Got all that?

Actually, Kikusui has some good detail on their website that helps explain each of these three varieties. First, though, here’s what they have to say about what makes their sake special:

The KIKUSUI brewery is located in Shibata City towards the northern end of Niigata. One defining characteristic of this area is the abundance of groundwater sources carring the clear, pristine water from the melted snow. The snow that falls on the Iide mountain range, which rise over 2,000 meters above sea level becomes perfect soft water. One of the key ingredients for Sake brewing is water and here there is an abundance of pure soft water. We at KIKUSUI feel blessed to be in an area so ideally suited for Sake brewing.

Niigata Prefecture is one of Japan’s largest food producers. In particular, “Koshihikari”, a brand of premium rice grown in Niigata, has been Japan’s most popular brand of rice for many years. Each grain is round and plump and when cooked is sticky with a pleasant texture. It has a delicate sweetness and fragrance when freshly cooked and is well known for its pleasant flavor after it has cooled. The flavor of this rice, like Sake, stems from the abundance of pristine water from the mountain snowmelt.

Kikusui FunaguchiSounds good to me, and there’s no doubt that the water and rice Kikusui use come together to make a beautiful drink. Let’s start with yellow, which, according to Kikusui was “Japan’s first nama-sake over 40 years ago.” Like Kikusui’s notes say, the stuff is full bodied, lush in both taste and feel. There are notes of mango and papaya, and a general funkiness that hints at yeast and grain. Remarkable stuff. And at 19% alcohol (Kikusui calls it “un-diluted” as opposed to other sakes that typically clock in at 15%), this sake packs a punch. And, yes, be sure to serve it cold. I like it straight out of the can – which may be sacrilege, I have no idea – but it just feels right.

Kikusui Funaguchi SakeAs for the aged version, in the distinctive red can, you can tell right away when you open this up that there is something different going on. The nose is both more smoothed out but also more intense, and when you taste it, you get a similar blend of smoothness and depth. The fruit is a bit darker – more plum than papaya – with a musky, honey undertone. The grain, too, comes through more strongly, more toasty. It’s hard to know exactly what the aging contributes vs. the more refined rice, and the family resemblance to the yellow can is unmistakable, but the aged version definitely kicks things up a notch.

Kikusui Funaguchi Shinmai Sake Green CanIn the opposite direction, the shinmai “sake nouveau” (groan, did they actually just call it that?? kinda 1990’s, no?), also bears that family resemblance, though with more of a unique twist. It’s frankly a bit harsher at first, the alcohol less integrated. The fruit is crisper – think green apple and honeydew (is the green can subliminally putting those thoughts into my mind? I don’t think so… but maybe). You do get the grain and the yeast still, and the body is still full and fairly lush, but it’s more settled underneath the fresh, crisp fruit. The shinmai only comes out once a year, so it’s a bit harder to find. Here in Atlanta, it hit in spring, using the rice that was harvested last fall. Frankly, it’s my least favorite of the three given the more prominent alcohol notes, but it’s still a fascinating drink, especially side by side with the other Kikusui cans.

Luckily, Kikusui in general is not that hard to find. In Atlanta, I’ve found it at Hop City, Le Caveau, and Buford Highway Farmers Market, and it very well may be at several of the top liquor stores as well. Next time you see a can, pick one up – it’s sure to get you in the mood to learn more about sake.

IMG_1606 IMG_1600 IMG_1585

The Atlanta Manhattan Smackdown

You live in Atlanta? You like a Manhattan? Be sure to check out this roundup of Manhattan cocktails around town that I wrote for Creative Loafing:

The Manhattan in its most common form is one of the most straightforward classic cocktails — two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a dash or two of bitters. But that outward simplicity is deceiving. Will it be bourbon or rye, and which bourbon or rye? Then, which vermouth pairs most harmoniously with that whiskey? What will that magic ratio of whiskey to vermouth be? Which little bottle of bitters provides the appropriate accents? Will it all be vigorously shaken or patiently stirred? Garnished with a toxic red “maraschino” cherry (the horrors!) or something more artisanal in nature like the real deal from Italy’s Luxardo brand? The minute but meaningful variations are infinite.

Continue reading at Creative Loafing Atlanta

Related: Maraschino Cherry Comparison, featuring H&F and Luxardo

Drinking New York City

I get to New York about once a year on average. I make lists each time. Bars, restaurants, food trucks, coffee shops. Places I just have to hit. It’s always a blend of the old and new – I lived there many years ago and still have to hit some favorites each time I go back. And I usually make it through only a small portion of “the list,” defeated by human limitations on time and consumption. And, of course, walking the streets of New York, there are always places that were never on the list that end up beckoning you in.

Cocktails at Mayahuel

For cocktails this trip, I ended up hitting PDT and Mayahuel and Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar (which also has an incredible wine list), and had time to walk in and check out Death and Company but not enough time to actually get a drink (bummer! this was at the top of my list but just didn’t work out). Other places I had really hoped to hit were The Beagle, Amor y Amargo, Booker & Dax, and Employees Only. Amazingly, The Beagle, PDT, Death and Company, and Mayahuel are all in an area about four blocks square in the East Village. That would be some cocktail crawl. Another time.

Mayahuel rocked. Thanks to some local Atlanta bartender friends who insisted I go there; I had never heard of it. Mayahuel focuses on tequila and mezcal, and does tremendously well with those spirits and a number of infusions and interesting flavor plays. There was the “Slight Detour,” with a jalapeno-infused tequila, reposado tequila and mezcal, agave nectar, and Xocolatl mole bitters. And there was something else… I can’t recall thanks to the tequila and mezcal. It’s a cool little underground space, an intimate bar with good things going on.

Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar was one of those places I just happened upon, another tiny little space that seats about 15 people max. I know the Blue Ribbon folks do just about everything well, so was confident that we’d find something good there. There were oysters, champagne, and deviled eggs, and then a cocktail involving gin and cucumber that was bright (naturally) green and tremendously interesting and complex. I just wish I could have done a few wine flights here as well.

The Bear at PDT

And the heralded PDT? Let’s just say I’m over the whole speakeasy-enter-through-a-secret-door thing, and I’m also kinda over gimmicks like bacon-infused bourbon. PDT has been doing this particular drink (the Bacon Old Fashioned) for more than four years now, but it seems people won’t let them take it off the menu. I may not love bacon-infused bourbon, but, luckily, I do love stuffed bears.

The only beer stop on the trip was Birreria, the rooftop bar at Eataly. The rotation of three house-brewed beers here are a co-production of Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Italian brewers Baladin and Del Borgo, but I was really disappointed in them (despite being a fan of Dogfish Head in general). All three are unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated cask ales. All sounded interesting – there was a witbier brewed with coriander and peppercorns, a chestnut ale, and a thyme pale ale. But none met the mark, more due to the beer lacking character than the presence of the flavoring elements. Service was equally disappointing.

Coffee? Holy smokes, it seems like there are excellent coffee choices every block or so in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I had the wonderful New Orleans ice coffee at Blue Bottle, a few fabulous espressos with different portions of steamed milk (no Italian names here) at Ninth Street Espresso, a great latte and espresso from Joe, a spot-on cortado at Third Rail… and I passed many, many more places that I wish I could have checked out, including the Mudtruck on wheels. Like I said, holy smokes.

Wine? That list at Blue Ribbon blew me away, and I had some really nice wine pairings at a “fancy” lunch at Eleven Madison Park. Favorite wine of the trip? A funky Savennieres from Domaine aux Moines that really woke up my taste buds with excellent acidity.

Making the Egg Cream

Oh, also at Eleven Madison Park, one of my favorites things imbibed this trip, an orange cocoa-nib “egg cream” that was perfection, with a subtle chocolate kick beneath a sharp orange cream bite. Like liquid dark chocolate-covered orange rind. In case you didn’t know, egg creams have no egg, no cream (discuss…), but are based on seltzer water, milk, and (most often) chocolate syrup. A high end take on this humble New York specialty was a surprising treat.

Of course, there was lots of food to go along with the drinks. A few places that I’d highly recommend: Kin Shop for semi-upscale Thai, Red Hook Lobster Pound for lobster rolls, the Lounge at Le Bernardin for late night seriously upscale seafood, Lonestar Empire at the Williamsburg Flea Market for an awesome brisket sandwich, and the always amazing chocolate chip cookies from Levain Bakery. Sure, there was some damn good pizza and pasta and bao and soup dumplings and pastrami, too, but the names above stood out most.

Local Spirits: Bourbon? Leave that to the South!

Giving Thanks

I am thankful for so many things, one of the smallest of which is the camaraderie, conversation and just plain fun that has come of sharing the Thirsty South. On our table there will be a very good bottle of the single barrel Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey that was picked out for my father-in-law’s 85th birthday on a recent trip to Tennessee whiskey country. And a turkey that is still sitting peacefully in a lemon/herb brine in the fridge. Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving. Cheers!

Garden & Gun’s BBQ Sandwich Guide

Garden and Gun magazine can be a treasure trove of Southern foodways, drinking, and all-around Southern culture, though of the decidedly “not on the skids” type. The most recent issue featured a roundup of 21 spots to indulge in a BBQ sandwich. I wouldn’t call this the definitive guide to BBQ sandwiches by any means, but the fact that they included Payne’s in Memphis (pictured above) instantly established the credibility of this list in my mind, as I have never had a finer sandwich in my life than the one at Payne’s. Here in Atlanta, there’s no arguing with the selection of newcomer Heirloom Market, who is shaking things up with a bit of a Korean twist to traditional Southern BBQ.

So, in order to help everyone navigate the world of great BBQ sandwiches (just in time for any Fourth of July roadtrips), we put together this handy Google map of the spots featured in the article. Happy eating!

View Garden & Gun BBQ Sandwich Trail in a larger map

Twelve Bones Smokehouse
5 Riverside Drive
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 253-4499

Alamo BBQ
2202 Jefferson Avenue
Richmond, VA 23223-7220
(804) 592-3138

Bear’s Restaurant
128 West 21st Avenue
Covington, LA 70433-3150
(985) 892-2373

Bunn’s Barbecue
127 North King Street
Windsor, NC 27983-6864
(252) 794-2274

Bunyan’s Bar-B-Que
901 West College Street
Florence, AL 35630-5317
(256) 766-3522

Craig Bros Cafe
15 W Walnut
De Valls Bluff, AR 72041
(870) 998-2616

Heirloom Market BBQ
2243 Akers Mill Road Southeast
Atlanta, GA 30339-2604
(770) 612-2502

Hickory Pig Barbecue and Catering
3605 Thompson Bridge Road
Gainesville, GA 30506
(770) 503-5235

Jackie Hite’s, 467 W Church St
Batesburg-Leesville, SC 29006

Meshack Barbecue
240 East Avenue B
Garland, TX 75040-7274
(214) 227-4748

Mustang Creek Bar-B-Que
37320 US Highway 59
Louise, TX 77455
(979) 648-2600

Old Hickory Pit Bar-B-Q
338 Washington Avenue
Owensboro, KY 42301-5450
(270) 926-9000

Papa Kayjoe’s Bar-B-Que
119 West Ward Street
Centerville, TN 37033-1631
(931) 729-2131

Payne’s Bar-B-Que
1762 Lamar Avenue
Memphis, TN 38114-1737
(901) 272-1523

Petty’s Carry Out
103 Highway 12 W
Starkville, MS 39759-3761
(662) 324-2363

Porky’s Bayside
1400 Overseas Highway
Marathon, FL 33050
(305) 289-2065

Railhead Smokehouse
2900 Montgomery Street
Fort Worth, TX 76107
(817) 738-9808

Bridges Barbecue Lodge
2000 E Dixion Blvd
Shelby, NC 28150
(704) 482-8567

Ridgewood Barbecue
900 Elizabethton Highway
Bluff City, TN 37618-4304
(423) 538-7543

Southern Soul Barbeque
2020 Demere Road
St. Simons, GA 31522
(912) 638-7685

Wilber’s Barbecue
4172 Us Highway 70
Goldsboro, NC 27534-9242
(919) 778-5218