Selecting a bottle of sake at a restaurant or liquor store can feel daunting if you’re not familiar with the Japanese terminology. You might know what you like in a sake when you taste it, but what do you do if you have a sake menu in your hand and don’t know where to start?
First, it’s important to understand the general categories of sake. There are two main types – sake without spirit added and sake with spirit added. Sake with added spirit is often a little more robust and mineral-driven. Within these two types, there are a few classifications based on how much the rice is polished, as explained in the diagram below:
Sake with a higher polishing rate is usually more delicate and aromatic, but it is important to note that just because these types of sake tend to be more expensive, they’re not necessarily “better.” Junmai daiginjo is usually more expensive because, as more of the rice is polished away, brewers need more rice to produce this style of sake. The best sake is the one that you enjoy, and that could very well be a more earthy and rustic style, with a lower polishing rate.
Beyond the general sake classifications, it’s useful to know a few more common sake terms. You’ll often see the words below attached to the names of sake on a menu:
Nigori: Often called a “cloudy” sake because of its appearance. Nigori is a style of sake where the kasu, or lees left over from sake production, is put back into the sake, giving it a unique texture and taste. Nigori sake is often less dry.
Nama: Nama means unpasteurized. Sake that is unpasteurized must be carefully refrigerated or it could go bad; therefore, this style of sake is harder to find outside of Asia. Nama sake tastes fresh and vibrant.
Genshu: Undiluted. A sake that is genshu is usually more robust and has more body because it is not diluted with water, and is higher in alcohol content.
Muroka: A muroka sake is not carbon-filtered – a process that strips sake of both desirable and undesirable flavors and aromas. Muroka sake is great for people who enjoy stronger, earthy flavors.
With this basic knowledge, you should be able to find your way around a sake menu or the sake section of a liquor store! And we encourage you to stay open-minded and to try all kinds of sake to find your favorite style.
Image courtesy of The Kura Collective/Elliot Faber