Himuro (氷室) is Japanese for icehouse -- the characters literally mean "ice room". For those in the audience born after the invention of mechanical refrigeration, an icehouse is (usually) an underground cellar filled with ice or snow collected in the winter, used to store perishable foods for the rest of the year.

Icehouses are known throughout the world and Japanese ones are not particularly remarkable. But they did have non-proletarian uses as well: in feudal times many a lord or emperor used them for storing ice itself, which was handy for keeping your drinks cool. There is even a shrine (and famous cherry blossom spot) called Himuro Shrine dedicated to Himuro Myojin, the god of the icehouse, in a place called Yoshiki near the ancient capital city of Nara.

Eventually, some enterprising sake brewer figured out that, instead of cooling down warm drink with ice from the himuro, why not keep the drink itself in the himuro? This is how namazake (生酒), lit. "raw sake", was born. Note that "raw" in this case means "unpasteurized" and should not be confused with nigorizake, which is unfiltered "crude" sake. Now, normal sake is pasteurized by dipping the bottles in water heated to 65°C, which of course affects the taste somewhat; namazake has been spared this treatment, and hence tastes fresher than normal sake. Of course, there is a price to pay, quite literally -- the added cost of refrigerated transport means that namazake is often easily twice as expensive as the boiled stuff.

Many a sake brewery has latched on to the himuro name in their advertising, but the trademark to the name -- and a very respectable claim to being among the first -- belongs to the tiny Niki Sake Brewery Company (二木酒造株式会社), nestled deep in the mountains of Hida-Takayama. Founded in Genroku 6 (1694), Niki's sakes are all high-quality, small-volume and nearly impossible to obtain outside the region. Their line includes three types of Himuro:

Himuro Daiginjô (氷室大吟醸)

The "basic" Himuro, made from rice with over 50% polished away (that's the daiginjo bit). Nihonshudo +3.5, making it slightly dry. MSRP ¥1650 (720 ml), available only from April to October.

Fuyuhimuro Daiginjô (冬氷室大吟醸)

The winter (fuyu) version of Himuro, available only from November to January. Its specifications are identical to the summer version, although I can't really comment as I've never had a chance to sample it.

Himuro Junmai-Daiginjô (氷室純米大吟醸)

The ultimate Himuro, a junmaishu (pure rice sake) made only from rice, yeast, koji and water. Noticeably sweeter than the normal kind, with a nihonshudo of only +0.5, and noticeably more expensive at ¥2233. Available only from April to October.

All Himuro are namazake and must thus be kept refrigerated and drunk within a month or two of bottling; it should be fairly obvious that namazake is never, ever heated, but is always drunk ice cold (hiyashi). In terms of taste, they are very much classical Japanese sake at its best, not truly outstanding (I'll reserve that label for Kubota Suiju) but extremely drinkable. As a rule of thumb, I tend to prefer very dry sake (which Himuro isn't), but I think my considerable affection for the stuff has a few other reasons...

"Uncle gn0sis! Tell us a story!"

My first encounter was entirely unremarkable. A friend at Todai went onsen-hopping in Hida-Takayama and brought back a sampler set of local jizake, including a tiny bottle of Himuro, which we proceeded to snarf down... warm, with shredded dry squid on the side, in a deserted physics lab. Nothing wrong with this, mind you, just nothing out of the ordinary either and really a bit of waste with this stuff.

The second time was more memorable. I was visiting Hida-Takayama in person for the first time, with two friends of the female persuasion, and we'd booked a suite at a swanky ryokan in Shin-Hotaka. Like all self-respecting swanky onsen ryokan, this one had three private outdoor baths (kashikiri rotemburo), so after dinner we grabbed our bottle of Himuro and headed down to the baths. The smallest one was dubbed Taru-no-Yu (樽の湯), "Bath of the Barrel", an apt name since it was indeed just the bottom of a barrel filled with hot water. It was a balmy summer night, and after a beautiful day some clouds had gathered and it had started to rain. I watched the raindrops light up in the floodlighting as the nearby river roared past, and laid back in the tub, the girl on my left arm holding an umbrella over my head while the girl on my right arm fed me chilled Himuro Daiginjo.

And there was a third memorable moment too, when the right-hand girl was kind enough to drop into Helsinki for a visit, bringing a bottle of Himuro Junmai-Daiginjo (and much fretting about how its delicate constitution would survive the voyage) as a souvenir. This time we scored another almost-free suite on Silja Symphony -- the world's largest ferry, running between Helsinki and Stockholm -- courtesy of a booking screwup, but alas, in the interest of public decency I'll have to leave the details of how the bottle's contents were disposed of to your fertile imagination.

And that, to date, is it. Rest assured, I'm very much looking forward to my next bottle, and I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try if you ever find yourself in the region (or at one of those very rare izakayas that has Himuro in the fridge). Kanpai!

References (all in Japanese)

http://www.hidaji.net/niki/
http://www.hidaroman.com/niki.html

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