Pop Culture and Japan

Sake Glossary: A Guide For Beginners

Immersing yourself in the world of sake is an exciting experience that can quickly turn into a life-long pursuit of knowledge. Just when you think you’ve mastered something, there’s a new kind of nihonshu to try or a different kind of rice to discover. Falling down the sake rabbit hole is rewarding, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the terminology.

To help, Yamato Magazine has created a handy glossary of useful sake terms to remember.

Amami – Translates to sweetness and is one of the five tastes of gomi.

Amazake – A sweet, non-alcoholic drink made from rice, koji and water.

Arabashiri – High-quality and generally expensive sake. It’s a free-run type of nihonshu which has been created by gravity before any pressure has been applied during the pressing stage.

Aruten – Short for arukoru tenka. Added alcohol. Another word for non-junmai sake.

Bodaimoto – The oldest form of sake production recorded in the 14th century. Raw rice and a small amount of steamed rice were added to water from the Bodaisan Shoryakuji temple in Nara. The mixture was left to rest, allowing the natural lactic acid bacteria from the water and wild yeasts to propagate. The mixture was added back into a tank with koji, creating sake very quickly.

Daiginjo – A premium type of sake that has a rice polishing rate/seimaibuai of 50% or less. It’s fermented at low temperatures to give it a strong ginjo-ka aroma.

Fukumi-ka – ‘Second’ sake aroma i.e. the mouth taste of nihonshu on the first sip.

Fukurozuri – Method of separating sake from the lees without external pressure by hanging the mash in bags. Nihonshu produced like this is sometimes called shizukuzake, meaning drip sake.

Fune – A vertical press that looks like a boat and is usually made from wood.

Futsushu – Ordinary ‘table’ sake. Non-special-designation nihonshu.

Genmai – Unpolished brown rice.

Genshu – Undiluted sake. This means the sake hasn’t been diluted with water.

Ginjo – A premium style of sake with a rice polishing rate/seimaibuai of 60% or less.

Ginjo-ka – The fruity and floral aromas found in the ginjo and daiginjo categories.

Gomi – The five tastes of sake: amami (sweetness), karami (dryness), nigami (bitterness), sanmi (acidity) and shibumi (astringency).

Happo-shu – Translates to sparkling sake. Carbonated nihonshu that has similar qualities to champagne.

Hiire – Translates to pasteurisation. It’s the process of heating sake quickly to 60 degrees. This heating makes sake shelf life stable by killing any bacteria, yeast of enzymes still active.

Hineka – An unpleasant smell that’s reminiscent of tsukemono (Japanese pickles) which occurs during storage or in the final product after bottling.

Honjozo – A premium style of sake with a rice polishing rate/seimaibuai of 70% or less. A small amount of brewer’s alcohol has been added to it.

Ichigo – A serving of sake measuring 180ml.

Isshobin – A magnum bottle of sake with a capacity of 1.8 litres.

Jizake – Locally brewed sake

JunmaiPure sake made with rice, koji and water without any additional alcohol being added.

Kakemai – Steamed sake rice that is added to the main fermentation mash (moromi).

Kanzake – Warm sake.

Karami – Dryness; one of the five tastes of gomi.

Kijoshu – A special type of sake, which is sweet as a result of replacing water with sake during the production process.

Kimoto – The traditional form of production for preparing the sake starter mash. Includes laborious process of grinding it into paste by hand. Wooden paddles are used to mix the starter into a large cedar barrel and then the mixture is separated into smaller barrels for the step in which workers mash the steamed rice and koji into paste.

Kobo – Yeast.

Koji – Steamed rice inoculated with the koji-kin mold.

Koji-kin – The mold Aspergillus oryzae used to break down the starch in steamed rice into glucose, which can then be fermented.

Koshiki – The name given to the vessel used for steaming rice in sake production.

Koshu – Aged/old sake.

Kura – A sake brewery and an abbreviation of the word sakagura.

Kurabito – Workers in a sake brewery under the direction of the toji (head brewer).

Midori-ka – ‘Third’ sake aroma. The aftertaste that appears in the throat.

Moromi – Fermentation mash. It’s made of rice, water, koji and the moto/shubo.

Moto – Sake yeast starter that’s made of rice, koji and water.  

Muroka – Sake that has been carbon filtered but has been pressed and separated from the lees. It’s clear but not cloudy. Carbon filtration can remove desirable flavours and aromas as well as bad ones. Therefore, muroka has stronger flavours that some filtered varieties.

NamazakeUnpasteurised sake.

Nigami – Bitterness; one of the five tastes of gomi.

Nigorizake – Cloudy sake made using only a mesh filter or by reintroducing lees from the moromi. The result is that some of the solids from the moromi are still present in the nihonshu.

Nihonshu – Translates to Japanese liquor. The official name of sake.

Nihonshu-do – The sake meter value. This is a measure of the level of dryness or sweetness in sake, ranging from -15 to +15.

Nuka – Undesirable powder produced on the rice grain during polishing.

O-choko – A small cup used for drinking sake. Can be made from glass, stone, tin, ceramics etc.

Okanban – The person in charge of heating sake and has a knack for seasonality.

Sakagura – Sake brewery.

Sakamai – Rice for making sake.

Sanmi – Acidity; one of the five tastes of gomi.

Seimaibuai – The polishing rate of sake rice/sakamai expressed as a percentage of the grain remaining e.g. 23%.

Seishu – The legal term for sake.

Shibumi – Astringency; one of the five tastes of gomi.

Shinpaku – The starch-rich centre of sake rice.

Shinshu – New sake. The Japanese Brewing Year indicates the 12 months between July 1st and June 30th the following calendar year, and all sake made in the period of the current brewing year is called shinshu. Not a legal definition.

Shubo – See moto.

Shuzo-kotekimai – Sake specific rice. Special strains of rice with favourable characteristics for sake production e.g. Yamada Nishiki.

Sokujomoto – Quick fermentation. The modern method of preparing the starter mash. Lactic acid is added to the starter at the beginning to stop unwanted bacteria.

Tanrei Karakuchi – A way to describe sake that is dry and crisp.

Tarazuke – Sake aged in casks, which takes on the aroma of wood.

Toji – Head brewer at a sake brewery.

Tokkuri – A vessel used to serve sake and is similar to a carafe. Is usually ceramic and is suitable for serving warm and chilled nihonshu.

Tokubetsu – ‘Special’ sake. Applied to the junmai and honjozo grades and brewers will have various reasons for calling a bottle tokubetsu e.g. a lower milling rate or a specific kind of rice has been used.

Tokutei meisho-shu – Premium sake distinguished by the degree to which rice has been polished and the added percentage of brewer’s alcohol or the absence of such additives.

Uwadachi-ka – ‘First’ sake aroma that wafts up from the drinking vessel.

Yamahai – Simplified version of the kimoto method and a shortening of the term yamaoroshi-haishi-moto, which means the ‘stop yamaoroshi process.’ Yamahai skips the step of making a paste out of the starter mash. While the yamahai method was originally created to speed up production, it’s slower than the modern method and is now only used for specialty brews that have earthy flavours.

Yamaoroshi – The process in which workers mash steamed rice and koji into a paste. Labour-intensive and is used in the kimoto production method.

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