Understanding the Language of Saké

The Tengumai Yamahai “Dancing Goblin”saké at Tokyo Record Bar.

As Sarah Karnasiewicz reports in the September/October 2018 issue, American saké’s moment has arrived. As a growing cadre of brewers work to push the movement forward, many point to education as one of the biggest challenges—for consumers, navigating the styles, variations, terms and lingo can be intimidating.

Jessica Joly has plenty of experience guiding people to the right saké. As Miss Sake USA, saké sommelier and bartender at New York’s Tokyo Record Bar, Joly says one of the best ways to learn about the category is to let your local sommelier walk you through options. “As a general rule of thumb, a great starting point for saké is junmai ginjo or gingo, because it’s the middle grade, so it’s not too heavy; it’s slightly aromatic and medium-bodied,” says Joly. “If you want something more aromatic and fruity, go to the more premium quality, a daiginjo, but if you want something heavier, go down a grade and have a junmai, which tends to be more robust, rich and fuller-bodied.”

Joly will often ask about a guest’s drink preferences as a reference point to choosing a bottle. “If you say you’re a white-wine drinker, we might recommend a ginjo. If you’re a bold reds drinker who likes Cab, you might like a junmai or a yamahai style,” she says. “Do you like cocktails, or white wine or whiskey? If you like whiskey, you might like a saké that’s aged in a barrel. Or yamahai style, because they’re funky and richer.”

For those who want to get familiar with saké terminology, Joly compiled a list of key terms. “Knowing these terms will help,” she says. “You don’t have to remember them all, but if you learn that sparkling saké or Junmai saké exist as options—that’s a place to start.”

RICE POLISHING

Probably the most important thing to understand about different types of saké is that rather than categorizing by rice variety or the region where the saké is made (as with wines) or by ingredients (as with beer), saké is primarily categorized by the degree to which its rice has been polished. The percentage of polish indicates how much of the grain remains after the milling process. It’s an important ratio, because most of the fats and proteins live near the surface of the grain (starch exists closer to the center), so if rice is polished to a low percentage like 30 percent, that means 70 percent of the grain has been removed and the resulting saké will taste clean and light because most of the fats and proteins were scraped away. Rice polished to a higher number, like 60 or 70 percent, will make for saké with a fuller body and more complexity, because more original fats remain on each grain.

Junmai: It used to be that 70 percent was the minimum polishing for this category, but that has been lifted, as long as the producer states the percentage (such as 80 percent) on the bottle. Junmai means “pure rice,” and if it’s non-junmai (i.e.: honjozo, ginjo, daiginjo) it has a bit of brewer’s alcohol (more on that below).

Tokubetsu Junmai: Designates a “special” kind of saké determined by the brewer based on flavor profile or for something unique. This could be the rice or a specific brewing technique. Polished down to 60 percent or less.

Ginjo: Premium saké made with rice polished down to 60 percent or less.

Daiginjo: Ultra-premium saké made with rice polished down to 50 percent or less.

COMMON STYLES

After a sake has been classified by polish, there are other styles (genshu, nama, nigori) based on what the brewer decides to do with the saké—i.e., leave it roughly filtered, skip the pasteurization and bottle it fresh, or leave it undiluted.

Genshu: Undiluted or full-strength saké, usually 18–20 percent ABV (as opposed to 15–16 percent ABV for most other sakés).

Koshu: Aged saké.

Nama: Fresh, unpasteurized saké; needs to be kept refrigerated.

Nigori: Roughly-filtered saké that’s cloudy.

Kimoto: An old-fashioned way of brewing saké that uses the original yeast starter method by using long paddles to mix the mash. By doing this they let natural lactic acids develop, which create a robust, rich and sometimes funky flavor.

Yamahai: This type of saké is similar to Kimoto but skips the step of using the long paddles and is less labor intensive. Like Kimoto, Yamahai is also funky and rich flavored but has stronger acidity and can gives notes of yogurt-like flavors.

Sparkling: Carbonated saké.

BASIC GRADES

Finally, brewers have the choice to leave the saké at its basic elements or add alcohol to boost the flavor profile.

Junmai: Junmai is the purest saké, with no alcohol added (made with just rice, yeast, koji and water). If a saké label doesn’t specifically say “junmai,” then it has had something (usually brewer’s alcohol) added.

Honjozo: Saké with a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added to draw out the aromas and flavors. It’s illegal to make saké this way in the U.S., so all honjozo saké is from Japan.

Futsu-shu: Basic saké, no specific designation. The equivalent of table wine.

Note: Several of these terms can apply to a single saké, such as Momokawa’s Junmai Ginjo Nigori Genshu, which is—follow along here—a roughly filtered (nigori), undiluted (genshu) saké made with rice polished to 50-60 percent (ginjo), and no alcohol added (junmai). If you can get a basic handle on what junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, nama, nigori and genshu mean individually, it will all fall into place for you pretty quickly.

This article draws on reporting by Adem Tepedelen in the 2009 feature Zen and the Art of Sake.


Like what you see? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for our bi-monthly magazine. Subscribe now and save up to 59%—it’s just $21.95 for one year or $32.95 for two years. Click here for details.