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A Guide to Sake – Japan’s Huge Sake Range Explored!

Japanese sake has a staggering amount of variety. Different brewing techniques, developed and honed over the centuries, have resulted in an assortment of sakes to suit the palette of virtually everyone. While you may have tried it once and thought it wasn’t for you, don’t give up yet! There is guaranteed to be a sake out there for you!

To make it easy, we’ve outlined the basic varieties of sake, along with some unique and rare brews. Study this list before your next Japan trip so you’ll go in an expert!

Sake comes in a range of different shapes and sizes. Photo by ngd3 on Pixabay.

The Classics

Seishu – Refined Sake

Seishu is the go-to sake for regular consumption. Its quality depends on numerous factors and the price ranges from dirt cheap to shockingly expensive. After fermentation, it is filtered, pasteurized, and diluted with water. This gives it a clear, fresh taste with an alcohol content a little higher than red wine.

Namazake – Unpasteurized Sake

Namazake has not been pasteurized to kill off the bacteria used during fermentation. The result is a sharp ‘freshness’ that is popular during Japan’s sweltering late summer. Due to the live bacteria, namazake needs to be refrigerated and is best drunk as soon as possible.

Genshu – Undiluted Sake

Genshu, meaning ‘original sake,’ is undiluted with water, giving it a stronger punch and higher alcohol content. An unpasteurized version, known as nama-genshu, has also become a big hit.

Junmai – Pure-rice

Junmai sake has none of the added alcohol commonly used in sake brewing to stimulate extra flavor. It is all natural – made only with rice and water. Crisp and clean, the essence of sake’s most basic ingredients are accentuated. Junmai sakes are generally slightly more expensive than regular sakes.

A cloudy sake. Photo: Steve Csorgo

Nigori/Doburoku – Cloudy Sake

These two types of sake have tiny pieces of unfiltered rice floating in the bottle. This makes the liquid cloudy and gives it a thickness that feels like a meal! Nigori sake is filtered using a large mesh that allows tiny pieces of rice to pass through, while doburoku is completely unfiltered.

Ginjo Sake

Ginjo sake exclusively uses rice polished at a ratio of 60% or less. While this may sound confusing, it simply means that at least 40% of each grain of rice has been removed. As the outside layers of rice are undesirable to sake, all sake rice is polished to some degree. Therefore, generally speaking, the more polished the rice, the better the sake. Ginjo sake has a pleasant fragrance and light, fruity taste. It is a good starter for first timers.

Daiginjo Sake

Daiginjo sake is generally the most expensive sake type available. Polished with a ratio of 50% or less, the rice used appears as tiny white beads. Some may even be polished lower than 30%, making a single grain barely visible! Daiginjo sake has a full body and delicate taste complimented by an incredible aroma. Both pure-rice ‘junmai’ ginjo and daiginjo sakes are also available.

Even today many aspects of the sake process are done by hand. Photo: Niigata Tourism

Rare Sake

Koshu – Aged Sake

Unlike wine, sake doesn’t have a rich culture of aging. However, with many breweries developing an aged range to offer a new sake experience, this is slowly changing. As sake ages, the color changes into a whiskey-like brown. It has an oily texture and strong taste, and, while it may not be to everyone's liking, it is worth giving a try.

Yamaoroshi

Yamaoroshi is the name given to ancient sake brewing methods. It involves the use of giant wooden poles to aggressively mash steamed rice together with yeast and water to create a yeast base. Due to the technical difficulties and strenuous manual labor involved, this kind of sake is not easily found. However, similar to grape treading, it is still performed as a Japanese cultural ritual. 

Kimoto

Today, any sake made using the traditional yamaoroshi method is called 'kimoto' sake. Kimoto is rich and gamey and absolutely delicious! While rare, the technique’s roughness and unreliability mean that kimoto is very reasonably priced.

Mixing fermenting sake. Photo: Niigata Tourism

Yamahai

The yamahai method was created during the Meiji Era to counter the time-consuming yamaoroshi process. The solution was simple – stop the mashing! It was discovered that by simply adding more water and keeping the temperature warmer, the process would happen naturally. The resulting flavor has a distinct sharpness born from the lactic acid produced during fermentation. 

Hiyaoroshi

Refined sake goes through two pasteurization processes. The first occurs in the tank after fermentation has finished and the other is before a brew is shipped out. However, once the temperatures become cool in autumn and the risk of rapid bacteria growth is gone, a second heating is no longer seen as necessary. This means the sake can be bottled straight from the tank. The resulting brew, known as 'hiyaoroshi', has a fresh taste that falls somewhere between namazake and seishu. 

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