9 Sake Terms You Should Know
The terminology for sake can be overwhelming, confusing and intimidating even more so than wine as there’s the added Japanese language barrier. For those of us lost in translation, the learning curve is steep. Here are 9 sake terms to navigate the menu like a pro!
Karakuchi is the word for dry, the opposite of sweet and if labelled so will be especially dry on the palate with very little perception of sweetness since most of the residual sugar will have been fermented into alcohol. Bone dry sake is labelled as goku-karakuchi and will have even less residual sugar, think Extra Brut Champagne.
Nigori is cloudy sake, that milky looking substance that has been roughly filtered with more of the rice particles coming through. By law in Japan, all sake must be filtered so if you hear anyone mention unfiltered sake, they’re either talking about charcoal fining, a different thing altogether, or Doburoku, an 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. These will have a freshness or vibrancy about them and sometimes a slight effervescence. To reduce the risk of spoilage and increase the shelf life, the majority of sake goes through a process of pasteurisation where the sake is heated to around 60 degrees for a few minutes.
Koshu, meaning aged sake isn’t actually legally defined in Japan but any sake with this term has been purposely aged with a specific flavour profile in mind usually in the bottle before its release after a minimum period of 2 years. They have 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 intensity and this is visible by the darker hue, a result of the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars known as the Maillard reaction similar to roasted coffee beans or seared meats. Also 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. Kijoshu meaning noble brew is actually a relatively new category of sake which has only been around for 50 years. It was created 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 the average Japanese consumer. 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 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. If this grade is brewed at a low temperature it will often result in cleaner, more refined styles. With specific yeast strains, they can even have fruity and floral notes. Keep in mind that the Ginjo grade term simply refers to the rice polishing ratio level and is somewhat limiting in defining the flavour profile. Some brewers have done away with the terminology all together.
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 natural fermentation starters and Kimoto being the older of the two was the way most sake used to be brewed up until the start of the 20th century.