- Brief Introduction to Japanese Sake
While the term sake in the Japanese language refers to alcoholic beverages as a whole, most English speakers often relate the word to Japanese rice wine.
Japanese sake, or Nihonshu (日本酒), is a type of alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. The basic ingredients needed are rice, water, mould and yeast. There are many different varieties of each individual ingredient available, so depending on the combination chosen, the taste and smell of the resulting beverage will vary and change.
In addition to that, Japanese sake is very sensitive to temperature changes, and its flavor characteristics changes according to temperature. There are 3 ways to drink it – either chilled, at room temperature, or warm.
When chilled, the delicate flavors of the sake are kept intact and will slowly develop in your mouth. This is usually recommended when drinking premium sake which usually contains a complex mixture of subtle floral or fruity notes.
On the other hand, when drank warm, most of the delicate flavors are lost, but the sweetness and richness of the rice starts to become more apparent, usually making it easier to drink. This is recommended for sake which contains very sharp notes, or is a little too mild in flavor.
This is not a definite rule when it comes to appreciating sake, but more of a general guideline. There is no one way to drink a particular sake as every one has a different preference as to what kind of taste he or she prefers.
- Specifications and Types of Japanese Sake
On the bottle’s label, we can usually see the following descriptions – Main Ingredients (原材料名), Milling Percentage (精米歩合), Type of Rice (原料米), Nihonshu Degree (日本酒度) and Acid Content (酸度).
Under the “Main Ingredients”, if it is listed that the beverage only contains rice and mould, we consider it to be “Junmai” (純米), with is further classified into “Junmai-shu” (純米酒), “Tokubetsu Junmai-shu” (特別純米酒), “Junmai Ginjō-shu” (純米吟醸酒), “Junmai Daiginjō-shu” (純米大吟醸酒).
However, if it is listed that it contains distilled alcohol in addition to rice and mould, we can no longer consider it to be of the Junmai class, and is thus classified into “Honjōzō” (本醸造), “Tokubetsu Honjōzō” (特別本醸造), “Ginjō-shu” (吟醸酒), “Daiginjō-shu” (大吟醸酒).
The “Milling Percentage” describes the fraction of the grain that is left after the milling process. For example, a milling percentage of 60% means that 40% of the original grain was milled away. Generally speaking, the lower the milling percentage (ie. the more the rice was milled), the more delicate are the flavors that can be produced in the fermentation process.
Depending on the milling percentage, the rice wines are classified as shown in the table below.
|Milling Percentage||Without Addition of Distilled Alcohol||With Addition of Distilled Alcohol|
|<60%||Tokubetsu Junmai-shu||Tokubetsu Honjōzō|
|<60% + Special Preparation Methods||Junmai Ginjō-shu||Ginjō-shu|
|<50% + Special Preparation Methods||Junmai Daiginjō-shu||Daiginjō-shu|
Next on the label is the type of rice used. The taste and character of the sake will differ and change depending on the variant of rice used. The type of rice used will usually depend on how the sake brewer wants the final taste to be, as well as the location of the brewery. Common types include “Yamada-nishiki” (山田錦), “Gohyakuman-goku” (五百万石), “Omachi” (雄町), “Miyama-nishiki” (美山錦).
The “Nihonshu Degree” is a measure of how sweet or dry a sake is. A positive number indicates dryness, whereas a negative number indicates sweetness.
|-6.0 and below||-6.0～-3.5||-3.5～-1.0||-1.0～+1.0||+1.0～+3.5||+3.5～+6.0||+6.0 and above|
|Very Sweet||Sweet||Slightly Sweet||Normal||Slightly Dry||Dry||Very Dry|
Finally, the acid content of the rice wine is a numerical representation of the amount of acids formed during the fermentation process. While we normally imagine a higher acid content resulting in a sour taste, this is not the case for rice wines. A high acid content will usually result in the sake having a richer full-bodied taste infused with various fruity notes, and similarly in the opposite direction, a low acid content will result in a bland and flat taste.
By considering both the “Nihonshu Degree” and the “Acid Content” together, we can have a general idea on how the sake should taste and behave like. The diagram below shows a simple chart that explains how the taste profile changes with these 2 specifications.
This is a general guideline on how the flavor changes, but the specific flavor profile of each sake is dependent on not just these 2 specifications, but many other factors as well, such as the type of rice or mould used.
- Other Common Specifications
“Nama-zake” (生酒) and “Hi-ire” (火入れ)
In order to prevent deterioration of taste due to fluctuations in temperature, most of the time the rice wines are pasteurized twice, and the sake is considered to be “Hi-ire” (火入れ).
However, this pasteurization process actually affects the taste profile of the sake, and generally slight bitterness or sharpness in taste develops during the process. If the brewer wants to express the original fresh taste of the sake, they either choose to pasteurize only at one stage instead of twice, or not pasteurize at all. Depending on when the pasteurization happens, they are labeled as “Nama-zume” (生詰め), “Nama-chozō” (生貯蔵) or ”Nama-zake” (生酒) (which is also called “Hon-nama” (本生) or “Nama-nama” (生々).)
|Normal Sake (Hi-ire)||Nama-zume||Nama-chozō||Hon-nama|
|Stored and Aged|
If a bottle doesn’t indicate anything regarding it being “nama” or “hi-ire”, it’s to be considered as having been double-pasteurized.
Normally, once the rice wine has been retrieved from the fermentation process, some water is added to it in order to bring down the alcohol content. In the event whereby no dilution is done, they are labelled as “Genshu”, where the alcohol content remains high (18~22%) and usually have a richer taste as well.