What is Sake?

Many people ask this very simple question: Just what is sake anyway?

Great question! Most people think of sake as a kind of rice wine, but really the production method is more like beer than wine. The brewing process is multilayered (and definitely worth researching if you are interested), but the most important thing to remember is: Koji!

Koji is what makes sake special. It is the microorganism that turns starch into sugar, which in turn is consumed by yeast to make alcohol.

Now about the categories. The most common category I see is Junmai. Junmai simply means there are only three ingredients in the sake: Water, Rice and Koji.


Nishinoseki is a Tokubetsu (Special) Junmai sake. This special Junmai is both dry and rich, embodying the nutty flavors sake can bring to the palate.

Junmai can be put in front of many other category names (Junmai Genshu, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo) but if you see any Junmai sake you know it has no added alcohol, sugar or anything besides water, rice and koji.

When alcohol is added we call it Honjozo. Adding alcohol at the end of the brewing process can help smoothen the sake and help keep the quality for longer. 



Another Tokubetsu! This time it is Hakkaisan's very famous Tokubetsu Honjozo, a signature sake in Japan. Lightly earthy, but with a clean finish exemplary of Honjozo sake.

Now on to the next two "big" categories: Daiginjo and Ginjo. To explain these we need to learn a little about rice.

Picture a grain of rice. The core is made of starch which is then surrounded by proteins, fats, minerals, etc. Generally, but not always, when more of stuff that's not starch is milled off the rice grains, the smoother, more elegant and delicate a sake is, while the more that is left un-milled, the more a sake is generally "funky" (but not always, sake is more an art than a science, this is just a rule of thumb. Other things affect the "funky-ness" of a sake, like the brewing method, water and more). 

Ginjo sake is a premium sake where the rice has been milled or polished down to at least 60%. One can generally expect a ginjo sake to have lighter, fruity tastes, often quite aromatic. Again, there is a wide varitey of flavors and profiles within the category of Ginjo, however as a rule of thumb they tend to be fruity sakes.

Daiginjo sake is a super premium sakes where the rice milling is past 50%. Daiginjo sake is usually very elegant and smooth, the way I describe a daiginjo sake is they are so smooth the flavor of the sake hits your palate, and then is vacuumed out! 


Dan Yamahai Junmai Ginjo sake, a more complex style of sake because of the Yamahai brewing style, yet still with the evocative flavors of ripe loquats and dried plum.


Yaegaki Mu Black Label Junmai Daiginjo, elegance with a soft sweetness that lets you know everything you need to know about Daiginjo sake! Look at that bow!!

Both Ginjo sake and Daiginjo sake are meant to be kept chilled, lest the flavor and quality start to change. Best practice is also to keep them away from sunlight.

Just a few more important categories to learn and then you should be set to start your journey to sake-pro! Now let's discuss a very unique category: Nigori.

Nigori sake is unfiltered sake, literally rice is left in the bottle! Well, rice lees. This gives Nigori sake that unmistakable "cloudy" look and creamy texture. There is no real comparison drink to a Nigori, save maybe an alcoholic milkshake. 



Sake from France? Yes! This is a very special new sake produced in France, which  gives the Nigori a light minerality, similar to wine, perfectly balanced with the cloudy texture.

Finally let's get on to my personal favorite: Nama.

Nama sake is unpasteurized sake. Pasteurization is a process of heating the sake for an amount of time to kill any harmful bacteria and ready it for trans-Pacific travel. It can take three months for sake to sail from Japan to the United States, so sake is usually pasteurized once after brewing, and then once more before bottling. This allows the sake to make the trip to the States and then sit on a shelf until you pick it up.

While pasteurization is wonderful for keeping sake up to snuff for long periods, it does remove some of the fresh nama-flavor from sake. Nama sake is very special because it still has a delicious "fresh" flavor, true Nama sake even feels bubbly on the tongue after sipping, this is because the yeast is still alive in the bottle (the secret of Nama sake in the US is almost all of it is pasteurized once, making it Nama Chozo sake. This is the only way it can survive the journey overseas, however do not despair! Both Brooklyn Kura and Kato Sake Works have TRUE Nama sake on tap at their breweries. It is a must-try!).


Both a Nama and a Genshu! If you've ever been to Kuraichi there's a good chance I recommended this sake to you. Tamagawa White Label is the best! Full stop!


One more extra thing to know: Genshu.

Genshu sake is undilluted sake, meaning no water is added at the end of brewing. Usually water is added to lower the ABV of sake down to about 14ish%. Genshu sake is usually around 18-22% ABV. Be aware when drinking a Genshu!

If you can remember these few categories of sake, you will have no trouble navigating the World of Sake! But of course, the best way to learn is by trying, so try to your heart's content.

We have well over 300 sakes here at Kuraichi and our Beverage Director Sam is always on the hunt for a new and exciting sake. Please come over to Industry City and visit us in store or order online and find your new favorite sake today!