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IDENTIFY Sake's Core Characteristics

Vastly complex, vastly rewarding

Where to start?Full of Japanese terminology, unique techniques, and over 1000 breweries in Japan, the world of sake can feel daunting at times, particularly when it comes time to choose from a menu or store shelf. Of course, while it’s always convenient to have someone make a recommendation based on your own personal tastes, the information below should set you up for your own exploration of the sake world. First, here a couple points of caution when considering sake as a whole:

Processes and ingredients The world of sake, and the endless variety within, is largely driven by production processes expressed by words such as ginjo, kimoto and nama, for example, or the level to which rice has been milled (termed seimaibuai). This differs from wine, which largely focuses on regional traits, the type of grape used, and certain aging processes. Although it goes without saying that the highest quality of sake is born of the most suitable rice and water, each of which add their own subtle characteristics to produce an extraordinary product overall, one may find it difficult at first to distinguish a sake solely by its use of a specific varietal of sake rice, water, or yeast. In other words, while there is certainly a refined pleasure in discovering, detecting and pondering the subtle differences expressed by different ingredients, newcomers may wish to start exploring the larger categories of sake types that are divided by how they’re made.

Regionality While a specific region’s soil or other natural characteristics are often recognized as defining elements of a wine’s character, sake types are more clearly defined by brewing processes. Historically, the characteristics of sake from a certain region were shaped in part by how they best suited a specific region’s cuisine. Although one may be able to conclude, at a general level, that the sake from one region in Japan is drier and lighter, whereas another is sweeter and more full-bodied, such regional characteristics are less pronounced nowadays. Therefore, one may find that a sake from one region tastes quite similar to a sake from another region simply because it was produced using similar methods and ingredients. For that reason, it may be better to choose a sake based on the aspects below rather than its region.

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Rice polishing and the role of alcohol

How polished is your sake? One key factor in sake classification is the size of rice grains used for brewing, or rather the amount of rice grain remaining after polishing, called seimaibuai in Japanese. Sake brewed with 70% seimaibuai rice means 30% of the rice was gently polished away beforehand, and the remaining 70% was used in the brewing process. A common misunderstanding is that simply having a higher polishing rate equates to a better sake. On the one hand, a high degree of polishing acts to remove proteins, fats, and other elements of rice that tend to produce harsher tastes, generally resulting in sake with more refined and aromatic qualities. On the other hand, it is precisely because polishing removes these elements that the resulting sake may lose certain unique and interesting nuances. In other words, those who choose only sake with highly polished rice will miss out on a significant portion of the wonderfully diverse world of sake. Meanwhile, any number of other factors, from production processes and ingredients to the brewmaster’s skill, can significantly impact a product’s quality and characteristics. Ultimately, experimentation and an open mind are key in the world of sake.

Junmai and the use of brewer’s alcohol. In addition to junmai sake, made with only rice, koji, and water, Japanese also commonly enjoy forms of sake to which a small amount of alcohol has been added for valid technical reasons, most notably to improve a sake’s vibrancy, finesse, and stability. While junmai and non-junmai types each have their own attractive characteristics, it is essential to experiment with both and enjoy each of their unique personalities.

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Sake types Know what you’re drinking

Here you will find a summary of key points relating to specially designated sake types, all of which are legally defined according to several specifications relating to ingredients and processes, and known collectively in Japanese as Tokutei Meishoshu. Sake types without these labels are simply termed ‘futsu’ (regular) sake.

Junmai & Tokubetsu* Junmai Literally ‘pure rice,’junmai is generally richer than non-junmai varieties and made with only rice, koji (a culture of rice and a  mold called koji-kin) & water. This contrasts with sake to which a touch of distilled alcohol has been added for stability, vibrancy and finesse.

Honjozo & Tokubetsu* Honjozo A type of sake that contains a small amount of brewers alcohol for added vibrancy and stability, and has been brewed with rice that has had at least 30% of its outer layer polished away (seimaibuai of 70% or less).

Ginjo / Junmai Ginjo Highly refined, complex, and often more fragrant, ginjo is commonly served chilled. Ginjo and Daiginjo type sakes ferment at lower temperatures and for longer. The two types here can be called simply“Ginjo”when brewer’s alcohol is used, or ”Junmai Ginjo.”when made with only rice, koji, and water.

Daiginjo / Junmai Daiginjo Sake perfection made with the centermost portion of the rice grain, scrupulous care, and often served chilled. The two types here can be called simply “Daiginjo”when brewer’s alcohol is used or “Junmai Daiginjo” when made with only rice, koji, and water.

*Meaning ‘special,’ a ‘tokubetsu’ junmai or honjozo can have any one of several qualities that make it special that must be indicated on the label, but often this refers to the use of extra polished rice or a special type of rice.

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Terminology Sake labels can be confusing, let us help

Genshu 原酒 Most sake is diluted with water before bottling. Undiluted, genshu retains a rich strength and character for those who enjoy a fuller brew. Commonly 17-20% alcohol.

Kimoto 生酛A traditional and laborious yeast starter production method. The yeast that survives this process is livelier, and hence yields mellow, smooth and richer sake. For more on kimoto, please see The Kimoto Tradition.

The Kimoto Tradition

Muroka 無濾過 Non micro-filtered, muroka unleashes a more lively and complex flavor profile that’s full of character.

Nigori にごり Coarsely filtered sake containing a fine rice flour that remains from the brewing process. Mellow, creamy and often subtly sweet.

Nama 生 A lively and fresh sake that is unpasteurized. Keep refrigerated.

Yamahai 山廃 A brewing process that cultivates more lively and concentrated yeast and hence yields mellow, and smooth sake that is somewhat richer. Yamahai is similar to kimoto, but differs in that it eliminates the laborious yamaoroshi stirring process for more modern methods. For more on yamahai, please see The Kimoto Tradition.

The Kimoto Tradition

Although certain terms do clash, many of those listed here can be combined to yield something like: “Junmai Daiginjo Muroka Nama Genshu ”, signifying a sake made with purely rice, koji and water (junmai) that is highly refined and uses highly polished rice (daiginjo), is unfiltered (muroka), unpasteurized (nama) and undiluted (genshu).  A truly intriguing brew indeed.

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What to expect inside Two scales are often used on sake bottles to indicate a sake’s core traits

Sake Meter Value (SMV, 日本酒度, nihonshudo) This gives a general indication of the sweetness and dryness of a sake that is based on a sake’s density relative to water. Negative values correlate generally to sweeter sake, while positive values correlate to more dry sake. Although sake is typically in the -3 to +6 range, some can even fall between -90 to + 12 and beyond. However, as these more extreme values do not necessarily mean something feels twice as dry, or several times sweeter, the sake meter should be used as a general guide only. In addition, while “dry” is perhaps the closest approximation of what sake with a high SMV tastes like, a dry sake is very different than a dry wine. As noted next, a sake’s acidity will also impact how sweet it tastes.

Acidity (酸度, sando) This is given on a scale that commonly ranges between 0.9 – 2.0 with higher numbers representing higher acidity. Like wine, more acidic varieties can give us the impression that they are more dry or puckering, while less acidic varieties tend to seem more sweet. However, keep in mind that sake considered highly acidic in the sake world is generally less acidic than several wines.

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Aging and Storage

Aging Unlike wine, sake is not generally meant to be aged in the bottle, although this is slowly changing. Aged sake, or koshu, tends to darken in color and produce sweeter flavor profiles with stronger aromas that many have likened to sherry.

Storage Generally speaking, to enjoy your sake as the brewer intended, it should be stored away from light and consumed as soon as possible after opening. Daiginjo and ginjo should generally be stored in a refrigerator to slow the maturation process, while nama (unpasteurized) sake should be stored in the fridge at all times.

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EXPERIENCE The Versatility of Sake

Drinking vessels

Ochoko

Ochoko Ochoko are small Japanese cups that people often associate exclusively with sake drinking. Because of their small size, they are ideal for sharing, particularly in Japan where you are expected to pour for each other. Ochoko  (photo: left side)  are often paired with a larger serving vessel called a tokkuri  (photo: right side)  which commonly has a wide body and thin neck, the ideal shape for warming sake.

Glasses Although ochoko are suitable for the Japanese style of pouring, wine glasses and tumblers better reveal the unique flavor profiles and aromas of sake.

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Temperature Degrees of flavor

One of the wonderful things about sake is its ability to be served warm or cold. Warm sake is a treat in winter, a traditional way of enjoying sake, and a great way to bring out the character of types such as junmai, kimoto, and yamahai. On the other hand, chilled sake can be more refreshing, give a tighter flavor profile, and present more subtle nuances that wouldn’t be as notable when warmed. By chilling sake before drinking, it is also possible to enjoy the range of flavors that reveal themselves as it naturally warms to room temperature. For ideal temperature ratings for Shirakabegura products, please reference their individual product pages.

Product Line-Up

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Pairing Some introductory guidelines

Award Winning Quality

Sake has long been known as a uniquely suitable companion to Japanese food, but nowadays it is also commonly paired with all sorts of world cuisine. Compared to wine, the milder acidity and lack of tannins in sake give it less potential for clashing with any one type of cuisine, while its wealth of amino acids give it umami characteristics that can enhance flavors, and the ability to neutralize fishy flavors. An easy way to start is to pair sake and food with similar characteristics and avoid pairings where either the sake or food overpowers the other. Meanwhile, a more advanced pairing might take sake and food with differing characteristics in order to create an interesting new combination of flavor. Overall, there is no golden rule when pairing sake, but it may be helpful to keep the following scales in mind while experimenting to find your new favorite pairing:

  • Aroma From highly aromatic and fruity to subtle and earthy.The more aromatic nose commonly found in ginjo and daiginjo types is certainly wonderful on its own as an aperitif, and can act in concert with a range of foods, while a sake with a more subtle aroma remains more subservient and lets the aroma of food have a greater impact. Overall, a safe bet would be to match the robust and earthy aromas of one sake with more earthy, grilled foods, for instance, or to match sake with a more herbal element in the aroma to foods that similarly include herbs. Of course, one cannot isolate the impact of aroma when pairing with food, several elements such as a sake’s body also play important roles.
  • Body Light and watery, bold and deep. In matching similar characteristics, the kind of full bodied sake typically associated with junmai, yamahai and kimoto types is best in the company of dishes with richer flavors such as teriyaki, barbecued meats, and particularly umami-laden foods such as mushrooms, cheeses and tomatoes. On the other end of the spectrum, honjozo is commonly more light and watery, and thus may be more suitable for lighter foods that are not overpowering. When combined with aroma, you may wish to avoid pairing full-bodied and highly aromatic sake with similarly rich foods, resulting in a combination that may be too rich and dense for some.
  • Sweetness From a sweet dessert to a dry desert.  In general, dry sake works well to balance out slightly salty foods, while sweeter sake, often found amidst sparkling and nigori varieties, can match up to foods with more prominent acidity, or even pleasantly complement the flavors of aged cheeses. Meanwhile, because sweetness can potentially overpower drier sake, when doing tastings it is recommended to work in the direction from dry to sweet.

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