The terminology for sake can be overwhelming, confusing and intimidating even more so than wine as there’s the added Japanese language barrier. Fret not, for those of us lost in translation, the learning curve is steep. Here are 9 sake terms to navigate the menu like a pro and impress!
Karakuchi is the word for dry, the opposite of sweet and if labelled as so will be especially dry on the palate with very little perception of sweetness since most of the residual sugar has been fermented into alcohol. Bone dry sake is labelled as goku-karakuchi and will have even less residual sugar, think Extra Brut Champagne or Brut Nature which have less than 3 grams of sugar per litre.
Nigori is cloudy sake, that milky looking substance that has been roughly filtered with more of the rice particles coming through. All sake must be filtered by law so if you hear of unfiltered sake, they’re either talking about un-charcoal fining which is a different thing all together or doburoku a completely unfiltered fermented rice drink which falls under a different category with a special license needed.
Nama is the Japanese word for fresh, raw or unpasteurised in the case of sake. The majority of sake goes through a process of pasteurisation where the sake is heated to around 60 degrees to reduce the risk of spoilage and increase the shelf life. The downside is that these lose their freshness but you can enjoy all that vibrancy by just ordering a nama.
Koshu, meaning aged sake isn’t actually legally defined in Japan but any sake that has this term has been purposely aged either in the bottle or in the tank and then released usually after a minimum period of 2 years. They have a ton of complexity with a very specific aroma and flavour profile of caramel, soy, chocolate, cinnamon, nuts, dried fruit and coffee. With time and warmer ageing conditions they develop more intense characteristics, visible by the darker hue which is a result of the reaction of sugar and amino acids. Note that oxidative characteristics are not uncommon and intentional similar to Oloroso sherry.
Kijoshu is a sweet style of sake well suited to serving as a dessert wine or digestif. The Japanese character for Kijoshu means noble brew and is a relatively new category of sake which has only been around for around 50 years. It was invented for VIP guests to Japan to match noble-rot wines such as Tokaji and Sauternes.
Junmai is a term for both a category and grade of premium sake and quite confusing even to Japanese people. As a category it refers to a pure beverage made from only rice, water, koji mould and yeast. Honjouzo is the antithesis to Junmai (to some the antichrist) which has a small amount of distilled alcohol added. As a grade, Junmai is made from sake with the least polished rice and usually has a full bodied flavour profile with more umami, acidity and earthy and savoury notes, a result of the way it’s brewed rather than just the polishing ratio.
Ginjo refers to sake made with rice that is polished down further. When brewed at a low temperature, it will result in a cleaner, more refined style. With specific yeast strains, they will even express fruity and floral characteristics. Keep in mind that the Ginjo grade term simply refers to the polishing ratio level and is somewhat limiting in determining the flavour profile. Some brewers have even done away with the terminology altogether.
Yamahai/Kimoto – ask for either of these and you’re likely be presented with a full bodied sake that is high in acidity and umami. The terms refer to a natural fermentation starter and Kimoto being the older of the two was the way all sake used to be brewed hundreds of years ago.