Glossary of Sake Terms
We have compiled a list of terms most commonly used in reference to sake with an explanation of their meaning to help you to understand some of the complex terminology that is often used.
Created by the yeast fermentation process, the acids are perceived in the sake’s sourness and tanginess. The acidity counterbalances the sweetness of a sake so a high acidity will make the sake taste drier than it actually is.
The range is usually from 0.9 to 2.0 with junmai and yamahai sake tending to fall in the higher end of the range.
Produced by the fermenting action of the yeast the amino acids give the sake its depth of flavour. They contribute to the level of umami in sake which can affect how dry or sweet a sake is perceived to be.
Most sake fall between a range of 0.8 and 1.2. Those at the lower end of the scale are usually more elegant and delicate; those at the higher end are usually more full-bodied.
Brewers’ alcohol is a distilled alcohol (ethanol) which is added to some premium grades of sake to elevate and enhance the fragrance. There are strict limits to the amount which can be used. It is not used to increase the alcohol content of the sake
This grade of sake is usually made out of sake brewers’ rice and the rice must be polished down to 50% or less of its initial size to qualify as a daiginjō. The common characteristics are a more elegant, refined sake which has more complexity in its aroma and flavour.
This is a standard sake which is not classed as a premium sake. There is no requirement on the amount to which the rice must be polished and the amount of brewers’ alcohol added to this sake can exceed the 25% limit placed on the premium sake. The addition of organic acids is also permitted for this grade of sake.
An undiluted sake. Sake is usually diluted to lower the alcohol percentage after it has been pressed. Sake can naturally be brewed to up to 24% alcohol content but is usually sold at around 15-16%. Genshu sake are typically higher in alcohol content.
A sake which is usually made out of sake brewers’ rice. The rice used needs to be polished down to 60% or less of the grain remaining to qualify as a ginjō. The common characteristics are usually a more aromatic sake (kaori ginjō). However, some ginjō are brewed more for their flavour (aji ginjō) although they will still have more elegance than the lower grades.
This is the generic term for all sparkling sake. Sparkling sake may simply have had carbon dioxide added to the sake when it is bottled. However, other sparkling sake undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle when additional yeast is added to the sake once it has been bottled; the carbon dioxide produced being the by-product of the fermentation process.
To be designated as Honjōzō, the rice needs to be polished down to 70% or less of the grain remaining. Honjōzō sake differ to Junmai sake in that brewers’ alcohol is added. However, there is a strict limit of 25% by volume on the amount of brewers’ alcohol which can be added.
The literal meaning of this term is “pure rice”. This is the way that sake was originally made simply using rice, water, yeast and kōji fungus. If a sake is labeled as being “Junmai” this means that no brewers’ alcohol has been added. Junmai sake tend to be fuller bodied with a lighter nose than non-junmai sake. This also applies to “Junmai ginjō” and “Junmai daiginjō” when comparing them to the non-junmai “Ginjō” and “Daiginjō”.
Kimoto sake are made by the traditional time-consuming sake brewing method where the lactic acid is allowed to naturally develop in the initial yeast starter at low temperatures rather than being added to the yeast starter. Lactic acid is needed to prevent the growth of wild yeasts and bacteria. They differ to Yamahai in that the sake is mashed into a paste – a labour intensive method. The resulting characteristics are full-bodied sake with a depth of rice flavour and a higher acidity.
This term is used for the rice which has been propagated with the kōji-kin fungus to convert the starch in the rice into fermentable sugars which fuel the yeast fermentation.
The kōji-kin is a naturally occurring fungus which is essential to the sake making process as it breaks down the starch contained in the rice into fermentable sugars. Without the kōji-kin there would be no food source for the yeast to feed upon, meaning there would be no alcohol fermentation.
Nama sake is usually fresh and lively in character as it is unpasteurised. Sake is usually pasteurised twice, once before storage and once before bottling, to stop the enzyme action of the fermentation process from continuing. However, Nama sake still contains live enzymes and therefore needs to be kept refrigerated and drunk while it is still young.
A style of sake where it is stored and matured unpasteurised and only pasteurised just before bottling. It possesses some of the freshness of the Nama sake but is not as susceptible to the sake changing in character. It should still be stored refrigerated to prevent any undesirable changes in the character of the sake.
Nigori sake are milky white in appearance as they still contain some of the sake lees (leftover rice solids). They have been filtered (as is required for all sake to be designated as sake, or rather “seishu”, in Japan), but they use a filter with a wider mesh which allows some of the solids to pass through.
Rice is polished in order to reduce the protein, fat and mineral content of the rice grain as these can impede the sake brewing process and have an adverse effect on the final flavour. For sake to be graded as premium the rice is polished down to 70% or less of the grain. (Junmai is the only exception to this rule.)
In Japanese, the term “sake” actually means “alcohol”. However, the term “sake” has now been absorbed into the English language and means the fermented alcohol made from rice. It is often referred to as “rice wine” which is rather misleading as it is produced in a more similar fashion to beer rather than wine.
SMV stands for “Sake Meter Value” and shows how sweet or dry a sake is in regard to its sugar content (although the perceived sweetness or dryness is also affected by the acid content and the amino acid content). It is the measurement of the specific gravity of the sake. The negative numbers represent a higher sugar content and the positive numbers a lower sugar content (and, therefore, a drier sake). The usual range is -3 to +10 but it is an open-ended range. A “0” rating is theoretically neutral but, nowadays, a +3 is where most people perceive the flavour to be neutral – neither sweet nor dry.
“Tokubetsu” means “special” and this term is added to those sake which have either undergone special processes (which are not always stated) or when more of the rice grain has been polished away than is usually required for the grade.
“Umeshu” is often translated as plum wine but literally means “plum liqueur”. Traditionally it is made with a shōchū base which is a distilled alcohol. However, nowadays it is also often made with a sake base which makes a much smoother drink.
Yeast is an essential part of the sake production process being responsible for the production of alcohol. However, the variety of yeast used affects the sake’s flavour due to the production of acids and amino acids in the yeast fermentation. The fragrance of the sake also comes from the yeast.
The K6 yeast was discovered at the Aramasa brewery.