There was a time when ordering saké in the United States meant contemplating just two options—“house saké hot” or “house saké cold.” And while you may still be ordering as such, an exceptional array of artisinal saké is popping up in liquor stores and restaurants across the country. As saké lists lengthen with seemingly indecipherable options—a tokubetsu ginjo nigori versus a junmai daiginjo kimoto, perhaps—even the most enterprising saké enthusiast is bound to be a little stumped.
To get you prepared for your next saké encounter, here’s a quick Saké 101. To start, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions and top it off with a handy glossary of commonly used terms.
What is saké?
Although frequently referred to as “rice wine,” saké is actually a brewed beverage, closer to beer than wine. True, authentic saké is made exclusively from water, rice, yeast and a special mold called koji. Generally higher in alcohol than beer or wine, it usually clocks in at around 15-17% abv.
How do you choose the tastiest, highest quality saké?
What determines quality in saké classifications can oftentimes be misleading. As in the realm of German wine classifications, saké classifications indicate quality based on production methods and ingredients, but they won’t necessarily tell you what’s a better, tastier saké for you. To decide what’s best for you as an individual, you’ll have to learn to identify the styles of saké you like and experiment liberally.
How do these classifications work?
Saké is classified according to the degree its key ingredient—rice—has been milled. According to Japanese law, ultra premium daiginjo saké must be made with rice with no more than 50% of its original mass remaining—generally just the white, starchy core after all of the fats, proteins and amino acids in the bran and germ have been stripped away. Saké made with highly milled rice is considered more premium because it requires more raw ingredients, and often increased labor and time to produce.
So daiginjo is the best, most delicious kind of saké, right?
It depends, and to understand why, consider a more familiar analogy. The traditional French baguette, prized for its delicate crust and tender white crumb is made with highly refined white flour—wheat stripped of its bran and germ. By contrast, a whole grain country loaf beloved for its hearty texture and nutty aromas is made with the addition of whole wheat flour and whole grains. The baguette isn’t necessarily more delicious than the whole grain country loaf, but the baguette might be considered a more premium product due to the higher level of skill and labor often involved in creating it.
Similarly, the premium daiginjo, delicate and pristine with its ebullient fruit and floral aromatics, isn’t necessarily a better saké, but it’s a more refined, often times more complex saké than a saké labeled simply junmai, usually a fuller, earthier saké made with less milled rice. While an uninformed saké snob may insist on drinking only super premium level daiginjo, most connoisseurs will tell you they are just as likely to reach for a well-made junmai or ginjo saké as they would a premium daiginjo.
What about all of those indecipherable Japanese saké terms?
Here’s a simple glossary:
Seimaibuai – the milling rate of rice used to produce saké. The more the rice grain is milled, the more fats, proteins and amino acids are eliminated, resulting in a cleaner, more delicate saké. Saké made with lesser milled rice tends to have more rustic, earthy and often pleasantly funky flavors and aromas. An indicator of seimaibuai is often listed on the bottle’s back label [the percentage to which the rice was milled down].
Futsu-shu—literally “normal saké,” but the lowest classification of saké, often mass produced, with no rice milling requirements and allowances for additives like distilled alcohol, sugar, acid or artificial flavorings.
Junmai—literally “pure rice,” meaning saké made only from rice, water, yeast and koji mold with no added distilled alcohol. Oftentimes a fuller, sturdier or earthier style of saké. While the milling rate for junmai saké must be indicated on the label, there is no required minimum milling rate, unless the term junmai is combined with ginjo or daiginjo on the label.
Honjozo—saké with a small amount of added distilled alcohol and brewed with rice milled down to 70% or less of its original mass. Because of the added alcohol, honjozo saké is generally lighter than junmai saké and often has pronounced aromas and flavors.
Ginjo—premium classification for saké brewed with rice milled down to 60% or less of its original mass. Light in style, but often an earthier type of saké than a daiginjo. If it’s labeled simply ginjo, a small amount of distilled alcohol may have been added. Junmai ginjo saké contains no added alcohol. An adaptable saké that pairs well with both lighter foods like raw fish, a variety of cheeses and cooked foods like meat or poultry.
Daiginjo—super premium classification for saké brewed with rice milled down to 50% or less of its original mass. If it’s labeled simply daiginjo, a small amount of distilled alcohol may have been added. Junmai daiginjo saké contains no added alcohol. Oftentimes lighter and daintier than less-milled saké and with exuberantly floral or fruity aromatics. This style pairs well with delicate dishes like fish (particularly raw fish), vegetables or mild cheeses. Easy to drink and appreciate, it’s a particularly good place for wine drinkers to begin their saké journey.
Tokubetsu—literally, “special”. A designation that can accompany any saké that is produced in a way that is distinct (made with super premium rice or a particularly labor-intensive production method, for example).
Nama or namazake—unpasteurized saké, often luscious and a bit racy with unrestrained fruit and floral aromatics.
Nigori—literally, “cloudy saké,” a rich, speckled or even opaque style of saké made with unfermented rice solids remaining in the bottle.
Yamahai or Kimoto—saké made without the addition of lactic acid, thus allowing for the influence of natural bacteria and wild yeast in the brew. Often results in a wilder, gamier style of saké appreciated for its higher acidity and funk. A great pairing with heavy dishes like stew, strong cheeses or braised Japanese foods.
Koshu—While most saké is intended to be drunk with minimal bottle aging, koshu is specially aged saké, often darker in color with a rich, nutty palate reminiscent of Sherry. A great dessert saké to be paired with vanilla ice cream, dark chocolate or a cheese plate.