Drinking sake is a sure-fire way of feeling better connected to Japanese culture. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or first-time drinker, every sip is another step towards understanding the heritage and traditions that make Japan so multi-faceted.
When entering the world of sake, there’s loads of terms thrown around that might seem intimidating and I think it’s interesting how people find their own way of relating to different topics.
From my perspective, I find popular culture helps. With that said, here’s a pop culture lexicon from a sake nerd that’s filled with random comic, wrestling and musical references.
Awazake – Sparkling sake that has the characteristics of champagne and sparkling wine. Imagine the wrestler Chris Jericho holding a bottle and announcing he’s going to enjoy a little bit of the bubbly!
Boidaimoto/Mizumoto – The oldest form of sake starter that dates back to the Nara period. Gained a reputation for being brewed by Shinto monks. Picture Aang from the Avatar: The Last Airbender brewing sake.
Futsushu – Ordinary, table sake. Think of it as the Morrisey of the sake world, our kid. A proper, working-class kind of drink that in certain circles can be underrated, but really has a hell of a lot to say.
Ginjo – For ginjo and daiginjo sake, think of both as the Beatles. Both are consistent in their quality, the kind of sake that’s easy to remember even if you’ve never listened to one of their albums. You can trust that you’ll have a premium product.
Gohyakumangoku – A type of popular rice used in sake production. To say this word is a mouthful and I like to break it down by thinking of Goku from Dragon Ball Z stuffing his face with rice quickly.
Imagine Goku is in an eating contest and he’s being cheered on. Go-yaku-man-goku. Almost sounds like a chant, doesn’t it?
Honjozo – I like to think of honjozo sake as the Johnny Cash of nihonshu. Deep-voiced and full-bodied, the kind of sake that can smoke meat just by being in its general vicinity.
Junmai – In my opinion, junmai is the Lady Gaga of sake. It’s got a pure singing voice with nuanced flavours and can become more complex at different serving temperatures.
Kimoto – Kimoto is a type of sake starter mash that dates back to the Edo period. When thinking of the process I imagine Gambit from the X-Men franchise using his bo staff in a downward motion to knock out one opponent and then using his kinetic energy ability to charge up a playing card and throw it at another opponent.
The staff movement is similar to the Kimoto style. Brewery workers use long poles to break up sake mash in a small vat and naturally occurring lactic bacteria is the kinetic energy in this metaphor. It ‘charges’ up the mash to infuse kimoto style sake with gamier and richer flavours.
Koji-kin – The Batman of the fermentation world. On its own, this mould seems fairly innocuous, Bruce Wayne hiding in plain sight. When you put it to work with food or drink in the right environment it kicks all kinds of ass.
Batman has also built a family for himself through the likes of Nightwing, Robin, Red Hood etc, lifting them up and giving them a purpose to fight crime. Koji also elevates whatever it comes into contact with, transforming something into a product with an awesome taste.
Koshu – This is aged sake and Gandalf from Lord Of The Rings immediately comes to mind when I think of it. When sake is matured over time, it transforms, taking on colour and added complexity, just as Gandalf The Grey became Gandalf The White.
Moto/shubo – The moto is the mother of sake, AKA the starter mash, AKA the Marge Simpson of the sake production process.
Marge is one of the most recognisable pop culture mothers out there and she’s a pillar of her family, just as the moto is a crucial part of nihonshu production.
Multi-parallel fermentation – Think of multi-parallel fermentation as a handicap wrestling match. Koji and yeast are an incredible tag team, taking on the rice and helping to convert starches to sugar and sugar to alcohol at the same time.
This sounds straightforward right? The process itself is unique to sake and is extremely complex. It’s like an ironman handicap wrestling match that can go for a long time and the vat is the wrestling ring.
Nigori – The Cloud Strife of sake categories. Nigori can sometimes be referred to incorrectly as ‘unfiltered’ but there’s no such thing. All sake is filtered and nigori is coarsely filtered. It’s much better to remember it as being cloudy and the Final Fantasy reference will help.
Sandan-Jikomi – This is the three-step brewing process that takes place over four days. Using the wrestling analogy is helpful again as the moromi (main fermentation mash) has all the ingredients elevating each other to put on a show and create a memorable product.
Sokujomoto – The modern sake starter style that’s adds lactic acid at the beginning of the moto creation. Think of an artist throwing all his colours against a canvas at the same time to create a painting in less time.
Yamadanishiki – The King Arthur, Elvis, Aragorn and Odin of sake rice. It’s the cream of the crop and used for making a wide variety of styles such as ginjo.
Yamahai – To return to the Gambit metaphor, this is a sake starter without the Ragin’ Cajun using his bo staff. The pole ramming step is skipped and an environment for natural lactic bacteria is cultivated for wilder flavours.
For a more comprehensive and general guide to sake terms, definitely check out Yamato Magazine’s sake glossary for first-time drinkers.