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Jan 19, 2023

HOW TOSHINSHU Been Gone – Winter Seasonal Sake Comes But Once A Year

Winter time means SHINSHU (pronounced “Sheen Shoe”). Literally meaning “new alcohol,” this broadly describes different types of Winter seasonal Sake. Unlike products shaped like Christmas trees or wrapped in cute packaging, seasonal varieties of craft Sake are more than a gimmick.

Jan 19, 2023

Rediscover sake – a deeply Japanese craft alcohol

Sake is tied to nature and Japanese rice culture – sake production starts as the first crops of rice are harvested, dried and polished in late autumn. Traditionally, and for many craft Sake breweries today still, all the Sake you purchase year-round is produced in the winter months only. Using newly harvested rice and sometimes even hiring the rice farmers to help brew the Sake. By the time the late harvest rice is picked, milled, and turned into Sake, those workers leave the brewery to prepare the fields for the new crop. The brewery will age many varieties and release them throughout the year while they wait for the new crops to mature.

SHINSHU are the very first batches of craft Sake sold by the brewery each year. For wine drinkers, you might compare this unaged, fresh Sake to a Beaujolais Nouveau wine for its fresh, brash quality, limited availability, and early winter release. Unlike Beaujolais however, Shinshu can be made with a variety of brewing techniques, Sake styles, and rice varieties. Some Ginjo or Daiginjo may taste clean and light like a Nouveau, but other Junmai and Honjozo can be rich with umami, full-bodied, sweet or dry.

Defining SHINSHU and what to look for

Looking at labels, Shinsu usually comes with higher alcohol by volume and one of a few Winter seasonal names. The most common is SHIBORITATE, which literally means “Freshly Squeezed.”  Shiboritate goes directly from the press where Sake is separated from the solid rice portion called SAKE KASU, and then straight into the bottle. That lack of extra processing makes Shinshu popular for being less delicate and refined, giving your cold dreary mouth a wake up as well and your sad, seasonally-affected chest a warm up.

The next is ARABASHIRI, from Arai and Hashiri, meaning “Rough Run.” Arabashiri are like Shiboritate, but only bottled from the very first portion that comes “running” out of the press from just the weight of the fermented mash on the filtering bags. Both are frequently unpasteurized and undiluted (cask strength) for a strong, bright, and less processed flavor that can be pleasantly powerful and warming during the cold, winter months.

FUKURO TSURI and SHIZUKU (“bag-tied” and “droplet,” respectively) also rely on the weight of the unfiltered Sake to press them through their mesh bags, using gravity to encourage them by hanging each bag, rather than stacking them into a press. These are collected slowly and in smaller quantities for a special, limited Sake. Once collected in this way, a brewery can still choose to age them and release them later, so not 100% of Fukurotsuri or Shizuku are necessarily Shinshu.

The most rare Winter seasonal is RISSHUN ASASHIBORI, which actually means “pressed on the first day of Spring,” but because that’s based on the lunar calendar, it refers to February 4. This Sake, as the name suggests, is only bottled that morning, making them the most limited of the Winter seasonal releases.

Other Shinshu include more traditionally-made unaged, or Sake made with one-of-a-kind processes and names only used regionally or by one brewery. These are often sold with Winter names including HATSUSHIBORI (“first pressing”), FUYU (“winter”) or YUKI (“snow”). Shinshu can also include NIGORI (“Cloudy”) Sake, which are sweeter and especially popular to drink in the colder northern regions of Japan during Winter.

What to pair shinshu with?

The final piece of this puzzle is food. Many of the breweries making these Sake have relationships with local fish markets, watering holes, and restaurants going back generations, and both have managed to stay open, because these seasonal Sake and dishes combine to take the everyday necessity of eating and transform it into something incredible and elevated – more than the sum of its parts.  With its diverse spectrum of amino acids, flavors, and of course Umami, the best way to enjoy Shinshu is with winter seasonal food. From oysters, scallops and crab, to persimmons, chestnuts and stews, Japan has been brewing and enjoying Shinshu with seasonal dishes for hundreds of years.

Each season has a distinct palate, each person their preference. Small batch, unaged, Shinshu varieties deliver a juicy punch of flavor and a unique freshness, produced with special techniques and meant for immediate enjoyment. Discover if Shinshu holds your favorites. You won’t get this chance for another year.