Best Saké Store in the World, Really

Posted by bmountain | Posted in Sake, Sake Stores | Posted on 16-01-2012

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At last year’s ICANN conference in San Francisco I was charged with selecting the theme for our customer appreciation event.  Recent parties by others in my industry had included a microbrewery by Directi in Brussels, a pub crawl by Verisign in Boston, and a Yacht Cruise by Demand Media in Miami (drink of the evening being Mohitos).  In the domain name industry libations are the key to a successful client activity but it’s getting increasingly harder to find an original idea.

In case you were wondering, we of course settled on a Japanese theme and booked a room for 75 of our closest existing and soon-to-be clients.   My most-excellent business development manager Carissa Pompei took care of the food and it was down to me to take care of the saké.  I’d read True Saké’s blog and heard that they were a pretty good shop, but in the dictionary next to over-delivering is a picture of their store.  Absolutely blown away.

I reached out to True Saké by email and let them know I was hosting an informal saké tasting  for 50-75 people and wanted their help in setting up a selection.   I made an appointment to meet the day before our event and walked there from my hotel.  San Francisco is one of my favorite cities and I really enjoyed the walk over.

The True Saké staff came up with a great selection of sakés.  We started with a Suigei “Drunken Whale”.  This is brewed in the Kochi Prefecture and is a Tokubetsu Junmai, SMV +7 so it’s definitely on the dry side.  It’s said to be brewed for the whales that reside off the pacific coast of Kochi.  The nose is a collection of rose, wood, and grape scents.  The brewery advises that this Junmai is “for the serious saké drinker” and while none of us were serious, we were all drinking saké and the first course was a big hit.  I tested the attendees to see what they could could taste and a few people came up with strawberry which is one of the elements that the guide suggested.

Course number two was a Dassal 50 “Otter Festival”, a Junmai Daiginjo from the Yamaguchi Prefecture, SMV +3.  According to the review “This uber Ginjo has a full-figured flavor that rushes chewy fruit tones to all corners of your mouth.”  A few drinkers noticed lemonade.

Just about everyone made it to the 3rd course which was a Kokuryu “Black Dragon” from the Fukui Prefecture.  Black Dragon is a Junmai Ginjo, SMV +3 with hints of roasted coffee, mint, salt water taffee, topical flowers, grapes, and honey.  A lot going on in this one and at this point in the evening it was getting pretty loud and boisterous.  The German contingent was really enjoying themselves and led the charge to the 4th course.

We ended with a really nice unfiltered saké, an Ichinokura Nama Genshu Nigori, “Ace Brewery” from the Miyagi Prefecture, SMV +/- 0.  Very fruity with apple, melon, and lemon aroma.

After two hours of great saké our guests began heading out for dinner meetings around the city.  My colleagues and I decided to stay at our suite and finish the appetizers.   Within a couple of hours I started receiving text messages and sure enough the room filled up again later that evening to polish off the rest of the saké!

More on True Saké which was founded by Beau Timken.  Beau often jokes that over 300 years ago he worked as a kurabito (saké brewery employee) in a remote village in Japan making superb saké on cold winter mornings. Instead, he was born in Canton, Ohio and didn’t taste his first premium ginjo until he was 28-years-old. That as he says is his greatest selling point, “If a guy from Ohio can open the first truly dedicated saké store outside of Japan, then anybody can learn to appreciate this wonderful libation.”

Whilst living and obtaining an M.B.A in the mid 90’s in Cape Town South Africa, Timken met a group of Japanese fishermen who were drinking their own premium saké that they had brought into the local sushi restaurant. In broken English these fisherman explained that the Benihana-style piping hot saké that Timken was used to consuming was in fact inferior saké. That day represented the official “First Day of my passion and obsession for learning all things saké.”

Beau Timken prides himself on being a self-taught sake aficionado. “I read every book and article ever written in English about saké, and then started writing the writers of these pieces,” he explained. “They soon discovered that my interest in understanding the essence of saké was almost fanatical, but I could not get enough.”

All the while Timken would visit various retail shops and markets in San Francisco’s Japan Town to buy saké that as he states, ” I knew nothing about.” “I would take chance after chance, I would buy bottle after various bottle, trying to disseminate what saké was about.” During this time Timken jokes, “I drank a lot of bad saké so that my customers don’t have to.”

During his exploratory self-taught research Timken started a saké journal that now numbers over 500 sakés listed in great detail. As he doesn’t read or speak Japanese Timken relied heavily on his own creativity to break saké down into layman terms that today when shown to saké masters amazes them in its complexity and sincere understanding.

Having learned all that he could without instruction Timken joined fellow Ohio-native and saké aficionado John Gaunter in Osaka Japan for an in depth professional saké tasting course. This trip represented Timken’s first time in Japan, and as Beau stated, “My future became abundantly more evident.”

It was during this trip to Japan deep in the warm depths of a koji room in a brewery in Kobe that Timken realized his eminent destiny, “I knew then that I wanted to open the first saké shrine/school/store outside of Japan.”

Two professional saké-tasting licenses and a master saké sommelier license later, Timken opened True Saké in San Francisco on August 7th 2003. “I chose the name True Saké because it represents the fact that most Americans have never been exposed to real or true premium saké,” Timken explained. “I then wanted to disarm saké and make a shopping experience that rewarded those who wanted to learn more about this outstanding beverage.”

Timken quickly reminds people that they receive little to no education or guidance when shopping in the vast markets in Japan Town, and he quickly points out that liquor stores or wine shops that carry limited sakés also provide little insight to the essence of saké. “I specialize in saké – all things saké – because it is unlike any beverage in the history of alcoholic beverages, and as such it deserves its own temple and place of appreciation.”

Along with True Saké, Beau Timken consults to the restaurant and bar industry and does an array of saké tasting events through the store and for private/corporate clients. True Saké hosts a monthly saké tasting and food-pairing event that focuses on the education and enjoyment of saké. Timken also is soon to publish a book on sake for Chronicle Books.

If you’re in San Francisco and looking for a nice bottle of saké, I’d strongly recommend True Saké, without question the best sake store I’ve ever been in.

True Sake

560 Hayes Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 355-9555

San Francisco, CA 94102

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