Maybe it's easier if I just tell you a dozen things I really like? If you see these brewers on a menu, try them - I think good brewers make good sake at whatever level, and I've pretty much gotten over the idea that I need to drink a certain level. Then again, if you see these brewers on a menu, it's likely that everything on the menu will be good in some way.
- Juyondai is deservedly famous - every one is different, interesting and delicious, and they make lots of different small-batch brews just to try them out. Incidentally, I don't understand the "don't drink the dai ginjo" stuff here (other than the exorbitant prices) - the first time I had one, it was almost viscous and oily, and certainly flavor-packed.
- Jikkon is in a similar vein - always awesome. Kudokijozu is frequently great, especially in their normal bottlings (not the 'super dry' Bakuren) of ginjo and daiginjo.
- Gassanryu is another from the same area (Yamagata), and seems to share Juyondai's philosophy of experimentation as well as some of its quality (but not on restaurant menus).
- Amabuki is my favorite sake from Saga - seems like the best balance of clarity and flavor - although I like the more flowery Nabeshima, and am happy with Azuma Ichi or Shichida.
- Toyobijin is a good brewer; I was converted to them early on when I drank their super high-end product accidentally, but I love their 'single rice field' options too.
- Furosen 不老泉is one of my real favorites; brewing everything in wood tanks, old-fashioned techniques, wild yeast...all of that produces big, interesting flavors. They (or their distributors) also seem to encourage getting a year or 3 of bottle age, which makes sake taste great if stored properly (like, at -4 Celsius)
- Senkin 仙禽is similar in philosophy (most or all fermented in wood), but I've never seen it on a restaurant menu - only the 10 varieties in my local shop.
- Jokigen 常きげん is another harder-to-find choice, if you're talking about the one from Ishikawa and not the one from Yamagata. They do things like traditional brewing even at higher levels, which produces a bigger taste that I like.
- If you have to drink major brewer sake, and Niigata at that, I'd go with Shimeharitsuru 〆張鶴 (or Hakkaisan 八海山 in a pinch). Dewazakura 出羽桜 is usually nice too for something so available; you may have noticed that I favor Yamagata sake in general.
And now, the out-of-hand, largely-meaningless, but still-existing list:
About the 'Liked It?' rankings (1-4): I drank all these at sake specialists. They're all famous, small-to-medium producers. I don't usually write down things I hated. Thus the scores are very toppy; ordinarily I'd check the average and re-base my system (really). As it is, anything with a 2 is pleasantly drinkable, 3+ is good or great. 1 isn't a value judgement, it just means it's not to my tastes - these are all famous, well-regarded producers, and my tastes are immature anyway.
|Brewer||Prefecture||Level/Name||Drank at||Liked it?||Notes|
|Azuma Ichi 東一||Saga||Tsugaru, Kashiwa||3|
|Suganadake 菅名岳||Niigata||Nama gen||Tsugaru, Kashiwa||4||The 'snow hikers' sake|
|Kamenoo 亀の尾||Niigata||Tsugaru, Kashiwa||3|
|Nogomi の古見||Saga||Tokujun||Yataichi, Kashiwa||2||Heavy, strong, better with food.|
|Fukuiwai 福祝||Chiba||Jungin||Ichi, Roppongi||2|
|Kagataka 加賀鷹||Ishikawa||Jun||Kanae, Shinjuku||2|
|Takaisami 鷹勇||Tottori||Kalakuchi Jun||Santa, Ningyocho||2|
|Itaru 至||Niigata||Jungin||Santa, Ningyocho||3|
|Dassai 獺祭||Yamaguchi||50 Jundai||Wakamatsu, Morishita||3||Very soft, no acid. Affordable for jundai. 'Women's sake'|
|Hidakami 日高見||Miyagi||Wakamatsu, Morishita||2|
|Kokuryu 黒龍||Fukui||Icchorai||Asahi, Kasai||3||In keeping with KR's style, a bit rough.|
|Gangi 雁木||Yamaguchi||Jungin||Uogokoro, Kasai||1||Would have sworn this was mediocre honjou. Bad storage?|
|Tedorigawa 手取川||Ishikawa||Akaoni, Sancha||2|
|Amabuki 天吹||Saga||Jungin||Akaoni, Sancha||3||Perfect flavor profile for my tastes.|
|Taka 貴||Yamaguchi||Tokujun||Akaoni, Sancha||3|
|Suigei 酔鯨||Kochi||Tokujun||Yamahei, Monnaka||2||Good choice for a cheaper sake|
|Juyondai 十四代||Yamagata||Honmaru Honjou||Omasa Komasa, Nakano||4||Results vary by place, but honjou doesn't get better.|
|Juyondai 十四代||Yamagata||Omachi 雄町 Jungin||Omasa Komasa, Nakano||4|
|Juyondai 十四代||Yamagata||Dewasansan||Omasa Komasa, Nakano||4||Holy shit.|
|Shuho 秀鳳||Yamagata||Jundai||Omasa Komasa, Nakano||4|
|Sasaichi 笹一||Yamanashi||さ々一 Jundai Origarami||Omasa Komasa, Nakano||4|
|Shimeharitsuru 〆張鶴||Niigata||Jun Jungin||色々||3||Dependable in this space.|
|Momokawa 桃川||Aomori||Jun||Okajouki, Nakano||2|
|Michisakari 三千盛||Gifu||Wajin, Meguro||1|
|Isojiman 磯自慢||Shizuoka||Aiyama 50 Daigin||Sake no Ana, Ginza||3|
|Hokusetsu 北雪||Niigata||YK 35 Daigin||Sake no Ana, Ginza||3|
|Kokuryu 黒龍||Fukui||Ishidaya Jundai||Sake no Ana, Ginza||4||Any time you can afford it, it'll be good.|
|Hououbiden 鳳凰美田||Wakayama||Jungin||Sake no Ana, Ginza||3|
|Kokuryu 黒龍||Fukui||Shizuku Daigin||Yukari, Kamiyamada||3||Alcohol note put me off.|
|Kubota 久保田||Niigata||Manju Jundai||Yukari, Kamiyamada||3|
|Hiroki 飛露喜||Fukushima||Jungin||Santensan, Kamiyamada||2||Might have been stored badly; Juyondai also tasted meh here.|
|Hououbiden 鳳凰美田||Wakayama||Wakamizumai Nama Jungin||Toritoku, Kayabacho||2||Light, clean, too sweet|
|Joukigen 上喜元||Yamagata (Sakata)||Jungin||Toritoku, Kayabacho||2||Refreshing, but too light for chicken|
|Jikon 而今||Mie||Jungin||Kawashima, Musashi Koyama||3||Reliable brewer, good brew.|
|Jikon 而今||Mie||Jundai||Omasa Komasa, Nakano||4||Reliable brewer... great brew.|
|Yuho 遊穂||Ishikawa||Jun||Kawashima, Musashi Koyama||3|
|Kudokijozu くどき上手||Yamagata||Bakuren||Hana Modern, Kagurazaka||3||The 'Super Dry' +20|
|Nabeshima 鍋島||Saga||Hana Modern, Kagurazaka||2|
|Minami 南||Kochi||Hana Modern, Kagurazaka||1|
|Denshu 田酒||Aomori||Jungin||Hana Modern, Kagurazaka||3||Right in the pocket for me.|
|Kachikoma 勝駒||Toyama||Hana Modern, Kagurazaka||1|
|Toyobijin 東洋美人||Yamaguchi||Ichibanmatoi 壱番纏 Jundai||Tamanegiya, Kagurazaka||4||Immediate impression: 'balance'|
|Reisen れい泉||Hyogo||Ranjatai Daigin||Tamanegiya, Kagurazaka||2|
|Harugasumi 春霞||Akita||Jun Nama Gen||Umibatake, Ikebukuro||2|
|Aradama あら玉||Yamagata||Jungin||Umibatake, Ikebukuro||2|
|Mizubasho 水芭蕉||Gunma||Hisanoji, Takasaki||2|
|Ugonotsuki 雨後の月||Hiroshima||Jun||Wadaya, Kayabacho||3||Surprisingly good at this level|
|Dassai 獺祭||Yamaguchi||Jun||Uotei, Monnaka||3||A weak 3, but has the brewery's 'soft' low-acid style|
|Hakkaisan 八海山||Niigata||Jungin||Uotei, Monnaka||2||Widely available (B+W label), but a little harsh for jungin.|
|Hakkaisan 八海山||Niigata||Honjou||Sushi Zanmai||1||Reliable and widely available, but doesn't excite me any more.|
|福千歳||Fukui||Junmai Hiyaoroshi (maybe)||Okamos, Monnaka||1||Sweet and simple.|
DAMN that's a lotta sake.