I figured that a little primer on sake could be helpful for wading through all of the terminology one encounters when buying/ordering sake.
Note that sake tends to aim to be a supporting actor, an enhancer to the food, one that heightens the food’s flavors but does not really compete for your attention. Because of this, umami and mouthfeel are important when it comes to sake. Flavor and aroma are also important, naturally. It’s often about balance, purity, and elegance. What this translates to is a predilection for a high milling (aka polishing) rate of each grain of rice. The polishing rate is sometimes described by the residual amount of grain that remains, known as the “seimaibuai.” There are a couple of categories for “seimaibuai”. The lower the seimaibuai, the more rice has been polished/milled down. At the heart of the rice grain is the “shinpaku” (“white heart”), where the starches are concentrated, and on the outer layers of the grain are the proteins, minerals, and fats, which may inhibit fermentation.
“Ginjo” = at least 40% of each rice grain has been milled away. A maximum of 60% of the rice grain remains, i.e. seimaibuai of at least 60%.* Note: some say 30% has been polished away.
“Daiginjo” = at least 50% of each rice grain has been milled away. A maximum of 50% of the rice grain remains, i.e. seimaibuai of at least 50%.
Impurities are often found in the outer layers, so a higher milling rate translates to a more delicate sake. But note that high polishing rates are difficult to achieve, and they’re time consuming (Dassai 23, with 23% of the grain remaining - and thus 77% had been milled away - takes 4 days to mill.) It gets commensurately more laborious for ultra-milled sakes like Zankyo “Super 9” (9% seimaibuai, meaning 91% of each rice grain has been milled away), which one article specified takes supposedly 250 hours to mill. The effect of higher polishing rates is a purer sake, a softer mouthfeel, a smoother blend of alcohol and water, etc. The overwhelming trend among consumers is towards ultra polished, more delicate sakes (though Westerners tend to buy a lot of big sweet nigoris).
Junmai vs. Addition of Brewers’ Alcohol
"Junmai" means pure, denoting that the sake contains no added brewers’ alcohol.
cf. “Honjozo” which means brewers’ alcohol was added, and at least 30% of each rice grain is milled away (a maximum of 70% of each rice grain remains).
The addition of brewers’ alcohol does quite the opposite of what it sounds like. It’s NOT like fortifying a wine like sherry. Rather, the brewers’ alcohol is added after fermentation but before it’s pressed on the lees, and then water is later added to bring down the alcohol content. We tend to think of added alcohol rendering something boozy. With sake, however, the addition of brewers’ alcohol makes a sake smoother, gentler, cleaner and more refreshing. The brewers’ alcohol tempers the sakes a bit, rounding out the edges and giving it a more balanced refined flavor. Adding brewers’ alcohol also has the advantage of helping storage/longevity and adding to the aroma.
- “Ginjo” it means at least 40% has been milled away but it may contain added brewers’ alcohol.
- “Junmai ginjo” means at least 40% has been milled away but it does not contain any added brewers’ alcohol.
- “Daiginjo” means at least 50% has been illed away but it may contain added brewers’ alcohol.
- “Junmai daiginjo” means at least 50% has been milled away but it does not contain any added brewers’ alcohol.
Junmais are heavier, fuller-bodied, stronger, more acidic. Friendlier for a wider variety of food.
If it doesn’t say “junmai,” then some brewers’ alcohol has been added.
Here, I’m borrowing from a recent article called “Against the Grain” by W. Blake Gray:
It’s said that water - not rice - accounts for most of the differences between regional tastes. Note that many sake breweries use the same rice variety (often “yamada nishiki,” discussed below). However, the concept of “terroir” is not as important to sake as it is with wine. Sake breweries were not necessarily established on sites where rice quality was grown, but rather where fermentation could best take place in cold winters.
Hiroshima - "Produces a medium-to-full-bodied style, slightly softer than Hyogo"
Hyogo - "The biggest sake-producing prefecture, responsible for a third of the total. Dry, muscular sakes"
Kyoto - "Soft water leads to sakes that are lightly sweet and gentle"
Niigata - "The most famous region for dry, clean premium sakes"
Yamagata - “A hotbed of flavorful kimoto and yamahai sakes”
Sake Rice Varieties:
Again, borrowing from W. Blake Gray’s article “Against the Grain”
Dewasansan - "Often creates a fruity, complex sake"
Gohyakumangoku - "Produces a fragrant, tropical, wine-like sake"
Omachi - "Earthy, less fragrant. Often found in junmai to be drunk at room temperature or warm."
Miyama Nishiki - "Usually used in drier sakes; the end product has more flavor"
Yamada Nishiki - “The Cabernet Sauvignon of sake rice, in terms of both its high quality and ubiquity”
"Genshu" = “cask strength” (no water added). ~20% alcohol
"Koshu" = aged
"Nama" = “unpasteurized”
“Nigori” = “cloudy” w/ added pressed rice
"Nihonshudo" aka “SMV” (“Sake Meter Value”) = approximation of sweetness, ranging between -3 and +20 (the higher = drier). Neutral is ~ +3.
“Yamahai” = style of sake made through traditional method of adding natural lactic bacteria. Result is more intense and bigger umami.