I was trawling the aisles of Trader Joe’s the other evening, purchasing cheese and other items which I didn’t need, when my eyes lit upon a collection of blue bottles sitting on the “New Items” shelf. Each bottle bore a label reading “Trader Joe-san’s Sparkling Sake.” Sparkling sake? Like, you know, all bubbly and stuff? Sure, I’ll give that a go.
The bottle is small, only twelve ounces, and is sealed with a unique pull-top closure which I’d not encountered previously on a sparkling beverage. This wasn’t a problem, just unexpected. Most sakes I’ve seen have screw caps so that’s what I’d been anticipating in this case as well.
As you can see from the photo, the beverage is slightly yellow, almost like the champagne to which it will inevitably be compared. Unlike a champagne, the bubbles are very small and unobtrusive. You don’t get the nose-tickling when smelling this drink as you do with other sparkling wines.
There’s a very strong floral bouquet to this sake, which may come as a surprise to someone who’s unfamiliar with sakes in general. “It’s rice, mold and water. Where do the flowers come from?” I can’t answer that question. It’s koji magic, I guess. The bottom line is that this is a very fragrant sake. At 7% it’s also much lower in alcohol than most other sakes.
The first thing to come to mind when tasting this drink is mead. High quality dry sparkling mead. Because the fermentation is stopped earlier in the brewing process there is still a lot of residual sugar in this sake. Some of this ferments out in the bottle, forming the bubbles, but a lot remains yet in the final product. Despite that it still has a very dry finish, making it a very refreshing beverage. If there weren’t that bottle sitting there, label displayed, it would probably be easy to mistake this drink for anything but sake, especially if your only concept of sake is some hideous cheap crap served overly heated by some Asian restaurants.
According to the label, this sake is made by the Ume no Yado sake brewery in Nara and imported by The Banzai Beverage Corporation exclusively for Trader Joe’s. Scanning the Banzai site it’s pretty clear that prior to TJ’s standard re-branding practice this drink was called “Tsuki Usagi” (‘Moon Rabbit’). I mention these things in case you either don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby or your TJ’s doesn’t stock this and you want to try to hunt it down in your area or on the web.
And I do suggest that you try to locate some of this stuff. It’s surprisingly tasty and, if you’re as sensitive to the sulfites in champagne as I am, would serve nicely as a substitute bubbly. I commend Trader Joe’s for once again stepping outside of the box of the standard fare to give us the chance to try something new and enjoyable. Let’s hope they keep this one on hand for a while.