Home / NIPPON's Culture / Japanese sake, the global phenomenon — try it for yourself! An up-to-date beginner’s guide to Japanese sake.

Japanese sake, the global phenomenon — try it for yourself! An up-to-date beginner’s guide to Japanese sake.

We’re beginning to see renewed interest in Japanese sake from young people here in Japan. Its meteoric rise is far from over abroad as well. According to the National Tax Agency (NTA), 2015 saw 14 billion yen worth of sake exports. That’s 121.8% of the previous year, making it the 6th year in a row of record sales. The delights of sake are begin revisited all over the world; whether you’re Japanese or visiting from abroad, why not give it go yourself?

SAKE, a global spotlight on Japanese culture!

According to the same survey by the NTA, the top 5 nations in the world for sake exports included the United States and nations in Asia like Hong Kong and Taiwan, but it’s clear that the current explosion in sake popularity is centered in Europe. There has been a steady increase in fans worldwide centered around foodies, possibly due to the influence of sake seminars and publicity campaigns aimed specifically at the foreign market. In surveys of what people want to try when they visit Japan, “trying sake” is going up the ranks and getting universal attention. But does every everyone in Japan know the different tastes of sake, and all the different ways of enjoying sake…? Let’s quickly revise!

There’s lots of varieties! Different tastes of sake

The flavor of sake is most commonly described by Japanese people as “dry” or “sweet”. More specifically, it is described by two values, the “nihonshu-do” (Sake Meter Value, or SMV) and “san-do” (Acidity). Generally, the more sugars a sake has, the sweeter it will taste, and vice versa. The SMV reflects the amount of sugars in a particular sugar, usually between minus 6 and plus 6. Sakes with more sugar (sweeter) are given minus values, and those with less are given positive values. Similarly, the acidity value describes the amount of “acid” is in a sake. In general, the higher this value is, the sake tastes drier and the flavor stronger. However, sakes cannot simply be described by “sweet” or “dry”; there are sakes that have low sugar levels but a light, fruity taste, while sakes that are low on acidity can have a sharp, dry edge. It is the combination of ingredients and brewing techniques employed by the “toji” (sake brewer) that give rise to this diversity, and speaks to the depth of Japanese sake culture.

Ginjo, Daiginjo, Junmai…so many types! Varieties of sake

Broadly speaking, Japanese sake can be divided into those marked with “junmai” and those which are not. If we incorporate the “ginjo” label as well, they can be divided into 9 varieties: “junmai-shu”, “tokubetsu junmai-shu”, “junmai ginjo-shu”, “junmai daiginjo-shu”, “futsu-shu”, “honjozo-shu”, “tokubetsu honjozo-shu”, “ginjo-shu”, and “daiginjo-shu”. Whether they are labelled with “junmai” or not depends on the ingredients. Those with “junmai” are sakes which are made with “rice and rice malt only”. Those which are not are made using rice, rice malt and distilled alcohol. The addition of distilled alcohol dates back to sake brewing in the Edo period, and involves the addition of “jozo alcohol”, a stronger form of shochu, to help maintain a consistent quality. In general, “junmai” sakes are sweeter and have stronger flavor, while “honjozo” varieties are drier and lighter.

Work required and lavish use of ingredients divide “ginjo” and “daiginjo”!

One of the most important ingredients of sake is rice. When used in sake, the source of all the flavor is in fact concentrated at the center of each grain; thus, the sake-making process involves polishing away the outside. This polishing procedure is known as “seimai”. When about 70% of the original rice remains (i.e. 30% has been polished away), we have the ingredients for what is called “futsu-shu”. Further polishing, removing more of the rice and using only the center, results in the final sake reaching higher ranks, from “honjozo” to “ginjo” etc. However, the brewing procedure is also very important; brewing at a low temperature for a longer time is set to bring out a superior flavor in Japanese sake, so a different label, “ginjo” is used which is independent of what ingredients are used.

Summarizing all this :

Polished to 70%– (30% removed) = “futsu-shu”

Polished to 70–60% = “junmai-shu”, “honjozo-shu”

Polished to less than 60%, not brewed at low temperature = “tokubetsu junmai-shu”, “tokubetsu honjozo-shu”

Polished to 60–50%, brewed at low temperature = “junmai ginjo-shu”, “ginjo-shu”

Polished to less than 50%, brewed at low temperature = “junmai daiginjo-shu”, “daiginjo-shu”

In general, “daiginjo-shu” is the highest grade of sake, and is said to have a flowery aroma and a deep flavor.

Japanese sake and temperature

Just like beer and wine, Japanese sake can be enjoyed at different temperatures to completely different effect. But did you also know that “hiya” (chilled) doesn’t actually mean “chilled sake”?

Yuki-bie (“snow-chilled”) : 5 degrees Celsius

Hana-bie (“flower-chilled”) : 10 degrees Celsius

Suzu-bie (“cool-chilled”) : 15 degrees Celsius

Hiya (“chilled”) : 20 degrees Celsius

Hinata-kan (“sunny-warm”) : 30 degrees Celsius

Hitohada-kan (“skin-warm”) : 35 degrees Celsius

Nuru-kan (“lukewarm”) : 40 degrees Celsius

Jou-kan (“upper-warm”) : 45 degrees Celsius

Atsu-kan (“hot-warm”) : 50 degrees Celsius

Tobikiri-kan (“extra hot-warm”) : 55 degrees Celeius

Warm sake is often all lumped into “atsu-kan”, but it actually refers to a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius.
The five degree steps between names really shows how using temperature to explore the breadth of flavor of sake was so well-established.

There’s no end to the different ways in which different people experience taste. There’s new discoveries to be had by trying the same sake at different temperatures with different meals, room temperatures and even moods. The breadth of ways in which it can be enjoyed is one of the true delights of Japanese sake.

Here, we’ve introduced the difference between sweet and dry, different names for different brewing methods, and the difference in taste for different temperatures as an entry point for your sake experience. But it’s also a little motivation to pick up a bottle yourself and experience the depth of Japanese sake, something which has become so commonplace now that we tend to miss the details. Recently, there are an increasing number of stores which serve rare items from breweries which are not seen that often on the market; there’s a similar variety in the establishments themselves, from very casual to ultra chic. Why not try some Japanese sake yourself with your next meal?

Top image:Koku Aloha

This post is also available in: Japanese

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