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Understanding the Language of Sake

As Sarah Karnasiewicz reports in the September/October 2018 issue, American sake’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 sake. As Miss Sake USA, sake 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 sake 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 sake that’s aged in a barrel. Or yamahai style, because they’re funky and richer.”

For those who want to get familiar with sake 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 sake exist as options—that’s a place to start.”


Probably the most important thing to understand about different types of sake is that rather than categorizing by rice variety or the region where the sake is made (as with wines) or by ingredients (as with beer), sake 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 sake 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 sake 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 sake 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 sake made with rice polished down to 60 percent or less.

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


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 sake—i.e., leave it roughly filtered, skip the pasteurization and bottle it fresh, or leave it undiluted.

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

Koshu: Aged sake.

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

Nigori: Roughly-filtered sake that’s cloudy.

Kimoto: An old-fashioned way of brewing sake 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 sake 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 sake.


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

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

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

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

Note: Several of these terms can apply to a single sake, such as Momokawa’s Junmai Ginjo Nigori Genshu, which is—follow along here—a roughly filtered (nigori), undiluted (genshu) sake 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.

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