I first spotted sake cups like the one pictured on the right in a 9th Street sake bar a few years ago. They were being used to hold tea light candles at the tables, and I liked the strange eyeball label. I didn’t realize at the time that they were more than mere tea light holders. Later, I saw them for sale — full of sake — for around $7 at Astor Wine & Spirits, so I bought one. (Sake is sometimes sold in 6-ounce glass cups with metal pull-tab lids; it’s a convenient and cost-effective alternative to the larger bottles.) The sake was surprisingly tasty, and between the good price and convenient size, I came back for more. When I looked for them again, I saw a variation on the eyeball design (the one pictured on the left), so I bought that one too. I didn’t know what they were until a Japanese friend recognized them.
They’re showing characters from a famous manga series called GeGeGe no Kitaro, created in 1959 by Shigeru Mizuki. It’s about a one-eyed boy named Kitaro who is a yōkai—a ghostly creature from Japanese folklore. He’s often accompanied by his father, Medama-oyaji, aka Daddy Eyeball, who is nothing but an eyeball with a tiny body. He’s depicted on the cup on the right bathing in a bowl, as he is in the page below. Medama-oyaji is apparently known for his love of sake.
The manga series spawned decades of anime, movies, and video games. The publisher Drawn & Quarterly announced earlier this month that it would publish GeGeGe no Kitaro in English for the first time next year.
Back to the sake. According to Timothy Sullivan at the blog UrbanSake.com the Chiyomusubi Sake brewery made three different sakes based on three of Shigeru Mizuki’s characters (Kitaro, Daddy Eyeball, and one called Nezumi Otoko, or Ratman). The brewery is in Mizuki’s home prefecture, Totori. Sullivan, whose sake blog is an excellent resource for the American sake novice, made video reviews of each of Chiyomusubi’s manga sakes back in 2009.
Sullivan describes the Kitaro sake as tasting of mild fruits with a crisp, green apple finish. To me it’s semi-sweet with a slight bite at the finish. It has very little aftertaste, more like a very clean, slightly viscous glass of water. There are some sakes that have distinct flavors of melon, apple, or peach; this one was more neutral to me.
This sake has an alcohol level of 16%, which is on the high side of a typical wine. It’s a Junmai Ginjo sake, which means that it’s brewed using grains of rice that have been milled to at least 60% of their normal size. Other types are Junmai (70% milling, the lowest grade of sake) and Junmai Daiginjo (50%, the highest grade). This milling, or polishing, removes most of the outer layer of protein and fat from the rice, exposing the starchy center, which is then turned into sugar with the help of a mold called koji-kin. The process is closer to beer brewing than to wine making; calling sake “rice wine” is a misnomer. Much of sake’s flavor will come from the various kinds of rice used.