Know Your Sake!
If you’ve ever looked at a sake list, you’ll probably have had no real idea about what it all meant. Some lists have dozens on, with fanciful names and maybe the region they’re from, which leaves you none the wiser.
However, with even a slight grasp of the vocabulary, you can soon find your way round that list and even be able to pair the right sake with the right dish.
Sake is made from rice and like grape wine is around 13-15% ABV. Just like grapes, there’s lots of different types and flavours, as well as techniques and aging styles. The most important factor is how polished the rice is, as the more it’s milled, the more flavour comes through. This is a serious business in Japan, with very strict rules about terms and nomenclature, which is handy for you.
The first thing you need to know is the category – like red, white or sparkling, these categories tell you broadly what to expect. There’s Junmai, Ginjo, Daiginjo, Honjozo, Nama, Nigori and Tokubetsu.
The first words you’ll see are the names of the producers – Dewazakura, Fuji, Eiko or Jokingen – then the titles, then the style.
What it all means
Junmaiis just rice, water, yeast and koji mold. It doesn’t have to be milled, so it can be quite rustic.
Honjozo hassome brewer’s alcohol added to it, often just a small amount. This isn’t because it’s cheap and nasty, it’s because some flavors are highlighted when some neutral alcohol is added. These sakes are lighter and simpler than the junmai varieties.
Ginjo. Gin means “careful selection” and jo means “ferment”, so this is carefully selected booze! These sakes have more milling, so it’s more expensive and of better quality. They can be Honjozo, too.
Daiginjomeans great careful selection ferment, so it’s even classier! Up to 77% of the rice grains can be milled away and these sakes can be Honjozo or Junmai. Junmai Daiginjo sakes are the best quality and the best with food – they’ll therefore be the priciest.
Other essential vocab
Sake is often diluted to achieve the “right” ABV, but Genshu isn’t, so it can be 16-22%!
Kimoto or Yamahai
These have lactobacillus cultures blended in them, so they have a slight edge with a creamy feel.
Koshu, O-Ko Shu or Ko-Ko-Shu
This is aged, so it has a lot of complex earthy notes, just like an aged grape wine.
This is unpasteurised and has to be refrigerated. Don’t order this unless you’re sure the restaurant or bar is looking after it properly. If it’s cared for, it’ll be amazing.
This is unfiltered, with sediment and particles left behind after fermentation. It’s thick, creamy and cloudy. Some like to shake it before drinking while others pour off the clear liquid. Sake snobs tend to look down on Nigori but many people, especially newbies, like it.
This sake has been aged in cypress barrels and has a stronger flavour.
This means “free run” and at the end of fermentation, this sake is hung up in bags and the liquid runs out under just gravity – no pressing. This is quite pricy, but if you see Junmai Daiginjo Shizuku on a list, try it!