Yukon Spirits launched two whiskies while I was skiing in Japan. I have not tried either yet (one of them is sold out, I hear) and in Japan, where whisky has been winning international awards since 2001, I drank whisky only once, from a 200 ml bottle of 12-year-old single malt purchased at 7-11 for 780 yen and consumed with salty snacks on the first day of après-ski near Rusutsu on Hokkaido. I did not take note of its name, for it was not a memorable whisky.

On subsequent après-ski afternoons near Rusutsu we drank Glen Livet Nàdurra

and Glen Morangie Quinta Ruban brought to Japan by my brother, who lives in Hong Kong. After a week we moved on to the ski resort at Furano, and there we focused on Louis Jadot 2014 Chablis purchased at 7-Eleven for 2200 yen, and enjoyed with the salty snacks to which we had become addicted.

Once or twice we ordered warmed sake at dinner to accompany our seafood hot pot and smoked hake, but I’m not a big fan of warmed sake so I stuck to the excellent Hokkaido beer. Then, one night in Furano, we dined at Kumagera, a restaurant famous for its local fare including deer, mallard duck and fresh cheese, and for its sake, which the proprietor brews himself.

Until this point, we had found the variety of sake available on 7-Eleven and supermarket shelves so bewildering we hadn’t dared to venture. But at Kumagera our server brought three giant bottles to the table, each quite different in character, each best served cold, and poured brimming glasses so expertly that the surface tension created a convex meniscus that kept the liquid in the glass until you tried to lift it. We lowered our heads and slurped, delicately, and then we each ordered again, comparing colour and acidity and sweetness from glass to glass. From that moment I was hooked.

Sake is wine brewed from rice, water and kōji, (Aspergillus oryzae), a fungus that converts starches into sugars and amino acids. There are a few terms good to know when selecting a sake, as I learned. “Daiginjo” means the rice has been polished so that less than 50% of the original grain remains, giving the sake a more fragrant flavour. Top quality sakes are always “daiginjo”. “Junmai” means the sake is made solely from rice, water and koji, with no added alcohol. So, “junmai daiginjo” sake is the best of the best.  “Junmai ginjo” is darned good too—made with only rice, water and koji, and the rice milled to more than 40% (that is, only 60% of the grain remains).

I was pleased to discover the two sakes currently available in the Yukon are both “junmai ginjo”. “Yoshi” Premium Sake is brewed by the 450-year-old Yoshinogawa brewery in the province of Niigata, famous for its rice. Junmai Ginjo “Bizen”, from the Okayama district, is made by ToshimoriShuzo Co. Ltd, which revived omachi, the heirloom rice variety with which its sake is made, in 1982.  Of the two sakes, Yoshi has a smoother mouth-feel, a flavour that hints at citrus and marzipan and a nice clean finish. Bizen is noticeably more acid, burning pleasantly in the throat on the way down. Both are best served cold, and go equally well with goma-ae.

A note on goma-ae. 7-Eleven in Japan is the traveller’s friend—during our first week we often ate breakfast, lunch and dinner from this marvellous general store, home to the vital ATM, always equipped with a bathroom, and where you can buy everything from sushi to pickled cuttlefish to marmalade to skin lotion. But you can’t buy much in the vegetable line. For the first week in Japan I did not eat a vegetable, and craved goma-ae. Since coming home I’ve made it three times.

Spinach Goma-ae

Adapted from japancentre.com

1 lb. (454 gr.) fresh spinach

4 Tbsp (60 mL) sesame seeds (divided)

2 Tbsp (30 mL) cooking sake

1 ½ Tbsp (22.5 mL) soy sauce

1 Tbsp (30 mL) sugar (optional) *(I tried with sugar and without. It’s better with.)

  • Wash spinach thoroughly and blanch in a large pot of boiling, salted water for 1-2 minutes or until it has turned a rich green in colour. Have a big bowl of ice-cold water ready. Drain spinach in a colander and plunge spinach, colander and all, into cold water. When spinach has cooled completely cold, drain and lightly squeeze with your hands to remove excess water. Roughly chop and set aside.
  • Toast sesame seeds over medium heat in a dry frying pan. Cool, then grind 3 tablespoons in a blender or with a mortar and pestle until powdery. Add the optional sugar and mix well.
  • Add soy sauce and sake to the ground sesame seeds and whisk until combined. Toss sauce and spinach together and serve with remaining toasted sesame seeds sprinkled over top.