The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company
The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company has opened in the Distillery District giving a shot in the arm to the sad state of sake availabilty in Toronto. A beverage long ignored by the LCBO, sake is widely available on the west coast but this marks the first opportunity for Torontonians to try and buy a freshly brewed unpasteurized batch of the alcoholic rice-based beverage without leaving the province.
As I walk through the old wooden doors where Gibsone Jessop gallery once stood a refreshing smell fills the air. Classical music plays in the background while a glass window reveals the handcrafted process. Like most establishments in this historic area, the brewery combines a sense of tradition and class.
Former CEO of Bento Nouveau Sushi and hard-core sake lover Ken Valvur made the transition from bringing Canadians solid Japanese delights to liquids after a visit to a 350-year-old sake brewery in Japan. "On one of my visits to the brewery I had sake that had just been pressed," he tells me while pivoting around the patrons flooding through the doorway. "With a long ladle I went down and grabbed some just-pressed unpasteurized sake, I brought it to my lips, and that was a magical moment."
The proud Torontonian explains that unpasteurized sake, or nama sake, is a rarity on this half of the continent because it spoils if not kept refrigerated. Since it's not sold in the LCBO, seldom found in sushi restaurants and expensive to ship over from Japan while kept at a cool temperature, the distillery offers Torontonians a rare opportunity to try completely unpasteurized handmade sake in their own backyard. "We're trying to recreate the experience of having just-pressed sake that I experienced out of the ladle," added Valvur. "It's quite a rare thing to have around here."
Valvur explained that the process includes combining California-made rice with fresh spring water from Muskoka. The sake enthusiast tested many sources of water and found that the Muskoka one was similar to the water used in the Fushimi ward of Kyoto, Japan's premiere sake production district. "There are amazing water resources in Ontario, and water and rice are the core ingredients," he said. "We were looking for specific characteristics of water that the Fushimi district has, and Ontario's got amazing water."
Through the glass window patrons are able to witness the handcrafted distilling process while the bar offers a variety of sakes to sample including some that have been freshly pressed earlier in the day. In a refrigerated display there are five different types of sakes available for purchase including two special edition blends. 300 ml bottles range between $12.95 and $14.95, while 1.8 L magnum bottles run between $64.95 and $74.95.
All bottles need to be refrigerated but will remain fresh for at least six months. The distillery also sells the by-product of sake production know as sake lees or kasu (used in gourmet cooking) for $4 per 250 gram container.
After pointing out the pictures of the distilling process that line the brick walls Valvur offers me a shot of freshly pressed unpasteurized sake. Previously my experience with the beverage was limited to cheap bottles purchased on adventurous whims at sushi restaurants. But like my first taste of pure agave tequila or wine that costs more than $10 per bottle, my eyes were opened to the full potential of the beverage, and now no lesser sake will do.
Photos by Dennis Marciniak. Writing by Jared Lindzon.