This glossary is meant to provide orientation for those who are not familiar with the terminologies commonly used for Japanese sake and sake brewing, along with its trends and background.
- Sake Rice
- Most sake is brewed with “sake rice”, a specific variety of rice that contains components suited for sake-making. Sake rice is different from those selected for eating, and counts over 80 varieties in its own category. One of the most popular sake rice amongst sake brewers is Yamada Nishiki, which is sometimes called the “king of sake rice.” Most of this prized rice is cultivated in Hyogo Prefecture, with some in Okayama and Fukuoka Prefectures. Other popular varieties include Gohyakumangoku, Omachi, and Miyamanishiki. In addition, each prefecture promotes a few varieties of their original sake rice as well. With today’s technology, however, ordinary staple rice eaten with meals can also be brewed into delicious sake.
- Rice Polishing Rate
- The desirable components for sake brewing are locked in the core of a grain of sake rice. The outer portion of the rice, therefore, is milled away to make clear-tasting, good quality sake. The “rice polishing rate”, in other words how much of the rice grain is remaining after the polishing, is an important indicator for sake’s character, and can be found noted on its label. For example, when it is noted “rice polishing rate: 60%”, this means the grain was polished down to 60% of its original weight, and 40% of the outer portion has been milled away. The more the rice is polished, the clearer the sake tastes; however, when the rice is polished, it loses the genuine umami – the flavor of the rice. In order to brew a more full-flavored sake, now, an increasing number of brewers are using less of polished rice, going against the latest trend of high rice polishing rate ranging from 60% to 80% in recent years. (Refer to “Specially Designated Sake”)
- Specially Designated Sake
- Most exported sake is made with utmost care, polishing up quality rice, then managing the brewing with precise temperature control, and this is what gets labeled as “specially designated sake.” Sake is classified into eight different categories based on many strict rules and guidelines. The quickest way to understand this, however, is either to look at the rice polishing rate (→), or to check how much the sake contains added distilled alcohol, because most classifications are based on a combination of these two factors. When the rice polishing rate is lower than 60%, the sake is classified as “Ginjo”, then when the polishing rate is lower than 50%, this is classified as “Daiginjyo.” When the sake is made only with rice, koji and water, without any distilled alcohol, it is classified as “jummai.” In addition, when the ginjo sake is made without distilled alcohol, this is classified as “jummai ginjo.” Similarly, “jummai daiginjo” is when the daiginjo sake had been made without any distilled alcohol. On the other hand, when the sake is made with distilled alcohol, and the polishing rate is lower than 70%, this is classified as “honjozo.” Jummai and honjozo can be further specified either as “tokubetsu jummai” or “tokubetsu honjozo” respectively if their polishing rate is lower than 60%.
- Aged Sake
- Sake traditionally has an annual cycle where it is brewed in winter, marketed in spring, and empties out within a year. When sake passes one year old, it is classified as “koshu” or “jukusei shu,” meaning ‘old sake’ and ‘aged sake’ respectively. Sake is quite delicate, and its quality is susceptible to storage conditions. Back when brewers did not have sufficient storage facilities, they brewed a type of sake that stored well at room temperature, and sold later as aged sake. In recent years, with the development of better storage facilities, we can now enjoy delicate sake like “ginjo” and “namazake (unpasteurized sake)” that are aged for a long time as well.
- Kijo-shu is what tastes similar to noble rots or ice wines, and this is made with a different brewing process from that of usual sake. Sake is normally brewed with a starter made of koji, steamed rice, and water, but half of the water is replaced by sake when making kijo-shu. Kijo-shu, therefore, is a type of sake brewed with sake. Its complex sweetness and lasting aftertaste makes it perfect as an aperitif or with desserts. It also tastes wonderful when poured over fruit or ice cream just like port wine.
- Sensory Evaluation
- Sensory evaluation allows to rate the quality felt by people’s senses, such as taste and vision. This application was developed based on specialists’ unique ingredient analysis and evaluation for rating the tastes and fragrances. The technique of the analysis made for this sensory evaluation is set in accordance to the Japanese National Tax Administration Agency’s standards, and the expressions used for its rating is based on the guidelines of Japan Sake Brewers Association. Ratings for fragrance range between low to high, at the same time, ratings for the taste range from light to heavy; these 4 range points are divided further into 16 different levels to create the evaluation matrix, to allow appropriate indication. Terminologies used in this evaluation, such as for rating the fragrances, include concrete names of fruits, to make it easy for anyone visiting Japan from abroad to understand the expressions for each sensory levels.