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Posted June 21, 2011 by samuek in Food Joints
 
 

Start A Love Affair With Sake in Toronto – Part 1

Who will entice you into this romance? The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company will and they will do this by offering a unique experience, at a unique location to try an amazing drink.
The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company is making a 1000 year old Japanese drink right here in Toronto.  By doing this it has done something historic in Toronto, in Ontario, in Canada and really in North America.  What have they done?  They have opened a high quality sake brewery.  This may seem like a simple thing but let me explain.  If you didn’t know already, 99% of sake is made in Japan.  Sake is an ancient drink, where the manufacturing process has been handed down for generations, 1000’s of years to be exact.  You do not just learn to make sake.  That is why in North America there are only 10 major sake producers, 7 in the US and now 3 in Canada.  You may think, well sushi is so popular in North America, why not sake…
Tuna Tartare offered for opening
Well that’s where the LCBO comes in.  There has been little to no priority for importing new sake despite Torontonians insatiable appetite for fast-food sushi.  So what happens is experimental Toronto folk try one of the limited selection, limited quality and in my personal experience many times older then proper sake, do not like it and type cast the beautiful drink.  What’s worse is that what most people know about sake is the Hakutsuru Warm Draft sake.  You know that white plastic square bin on top of a table at most sushi spots with a little tap to dispense it?  Not to knock Hakutsuru, but that drink is not indicative of the breadth of selection, taste, flavor and compatibility sake has to offer.
Enter Ontario Spring Water Sake Company.  Despite a 1000 year head start by Japan and a poorly supported sake market in Ontario, they boldly decide to make sake in Toronto.  In my mind risky, but as a lover of sake in Toronto, equally exciting.  A few good things first are they picked the historic Distillery District to set up shop.  This will add some actual brewing to one of my favorite districts that really doesn’t brew or distill much.  Ontario Spring Water Sake Company also has brought something else unique to North America, Namazke sake or unpasteurized sake.  Pasteurization is preservation method but it changes the flavor profile of the sake.  Namazake in my mind is the pinnacle of sake as it is the best representation of what the Brewmaster (Toji) intends.  The Brewmaster does not have to change components to accommodate for shelf life considerations.  This is what you will find at Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, the freshest and in turn, one of the most unique sake in North America. 

So who would dare take on this challenge?  Ken Valvur would.  Ken was the CEO of Bento Nouveau and a self admitted sake lover.  When talking with him, though a seasoned business person, he had a child like aura, excited to know what people thought about his work.  He was glad to share his experiences bringing this sake to market. 
Fermentation tanks available for all to see

Since it is manufactured on site and available for tasting at their location it is the freshest available in Ontario.  I know the word fresh and alcohol does not sound like it goes together but for sake it does.  When I was trying to explain it to a friend, I was reminded of an article I read about the owner of the famous Cheese Boutique, Fatos Pristine.  He said, in summary, that even 6 day old imported Buffalo Mozzarella, which is ancient to him, still reminds him of tasting the cheese right from its warm water bath in Campania, Italy.  This 2006 article is what started my love affair with Buffalo Mozzarella.  I imagine that when Fatos was in Italy tasting the just made, hand crafted mozzarella is the same as what Ken Valvur, the owner felt in his own place in Toronto, when he tasted his own sake for the first time.   

I asked Ken about restaurants he has tried in the city and he mentioned amongst others, Ematei.  Since Ematei is one of the more seasoned Japanese establishments we discussed similar ones like why Zen Restaurant is in a shady strip mall in Scarborough.  Don’t let that fool you though, Zen Restaurant is top notch.  We talked about sake in Canada, specifically Artisian Sake Maker (one of my personal all time  favorites) on Granville Island, British Columbia and Nipro Brewery in Richmond, British Columbia and the sort of microcosm that is Ontario Sake.  He asked me what I thought of the sake, but he didn’t have 3 hours to spare so I gave him the short and sweet version.  I love unpasteurized sake and his sake is so refreshing and perfect for all seasons.  I advised I really enjoyed the Teion version which surprisingly reminded me more of a white wine.  Their Teion is the most unique tasting sake I have had besides aged sake which is much sweeter and stronger.  Thanks to Daisuke Izutsu at Kaiseki-Sakura for the aged sake.

Ken does not undertake this alone.  He has The General Manager, Kaz Hayashi who was an Ontario agent for Japan’s largest brewery, Gekkeikan.  Kaz, a very approachable manager was also more then happy to discuss their sake.  Amongst other things, he spoke about some of the steps they had to take to bring the product to market and the benefits of trying certain sakes warm.  Now I do not mean warm as in that generic stuff you get dispensed out of a warmer in every “Japanese” restaurant in the city.  I mean drinking certain sakes warm that call for it.  He mentioned that 35 to 40 degrees Celsius is beneficial as our mouth is naturally warm and will better pick up the myriad of flavors.
Kaz and I laughing about…well actually I am not sure, but I am sure it was I who was clever and witty.  Read my second post Start A Love Affair With Sake in Toronto – Part 2 to learn about the great sake they produce.


Like or hate sake?  Let me know.


Photographs by Brian John Charbonneau.


samuek

 


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