Key Sake Terms
One of the best things about sake is that there are so many different types and variations - but this variety is also overwhelming to sake newbies!
If you want to become a sake samurai, you'll need to go to sake school. But if you want to start with the basics, here are some key concepts and terms that will help you wrap your head around this delicious drink.
One of the first steps in sake making is the polishing of the rice. Before the actual sake-making process, the rice kernel has to be “polished” — or milled — to remove the outer layer of each grain, exposing its starchy core.
To get some perspective on rice polishing, keep in mind that to get from brown rice to white rice, you need to polish rice to about 90 per cent (i.e., polishing off 10 per cent).
To produce good sake, you need to polish off much more than that! We'll get into a little more detail below, but for now, keep in mind that good sake is usually polished to about 50 to 70 per cent (ie, from 30 to 50 per cent is polished off).
So if you read that sake has been polished to 60 per cent, it means 40 per cent of the original rice kernel has been polished away, leaving it just 60 per cent of its original size.
The more rice has been polished, the higher the classification level. But more polished rice doesn't always mean better rice. Sake experts also love the cheaper local stuff, as long as it's made from quality ingredients by good brewers. Ultimately, you should trust your palate and preferences.
Junmai is the Japanese word meaning “pure rice.” This is an important term in the world of sake, as it separates pure rice sake from non-pure rice sake.
Junmai is brewed using only rice, water, yeast, and koji — there are no other additives, such as sugar or alcohol. Unless a bottle of sake says “junmai” (this will be written in Japanese as Junmai), it will have added brewers alcohol and / or other additives.
While junmai sounds like a good thing (and it usually is!), Just because sake is not junmai does not mean it is inferior. Additives such as distilled brewers alcohol are used by skilled brewers to change and enhance flavour profiles and aromas and can make for some very smooth and easy-to-drink sake.
As mentioned earlier, junmai refers to pure rice (non-additive) sake. Additionally, the junmai classification means that the rice used has been polished to at least 70 per cent. While it's hard to over-generalize, junmai sake tends to have a rich full body with an intense, slightly acidic flavour.
This type of sake can be particularly nice when served warm or at room temperature.
Honjozo also uses rice that has been polished to at least 70 per cent (as with junmai). However, honjozo, by definition, contains a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol, which is added to smooth out the flavour and aroma of the sake. Honjozo sakes are often light and easy to drink and can be enjoyed both warm or chilled.
Ginjo is a premium sake that uses rice that has been polished to at least 60 per cent. It is brewed using special yeast and fermentation techniques. The result is often a light, fruity, and complex flavour that is usually quite fragrant. It's easy to drink and often (though certainly not as a rule) served chilled.
Daiginjo is super-premium sake (hence the “dai,” or “big”) and is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the brewer's art. It requires precise brewing methods and uses rice that has been polished down to at least 50 per cent. Daiginjo sakes are often relatively pricey and are usually served chilled to bring out their nice light, complex flavours and aromas.
Nigori sake is cloudy white and coarsely filtered with very small bits of rice floating around in it. It's usually sweet and creamy and can range from silky smooth to thick and chunky. This type of sake seems to be far more popular in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan than in Japan.