Sake glossary

-shu 酒 is sake. The kanji character means sake. The alternate reading is “shu,” thus “nihonshu” for “Japanese Sake,” or “Genshu,” for undiluted sake. When brewers talk about sake being young, usually it is “shinshu,” new sake, which will be pasteurized versus “namazake,” which is also usually fresh. “Sake” also converts to “zake,” as in “kanzake” for hot sake or “kikizake,” for tasting sake. 

Junmai 純米  literally means “pure rice,” and refers to a family of sake as well as a grade of sake within that family. Junmai or pure rice sake is made using water, rice, yeast, and koji. There is no distilled alcohol used to make junmai: it is pure rice. 

Junmai Ginjo 純米吟醸 is pure rice, “junmai,” sake that is made with rice that must been refined to 60% or less of its original size. Junmai ginjos are bright, fruity, and aromatic.

Junmai Daiginjo 純米大吟醸 would be most accurately described as the Ultimate in premium sake. By definition, junmai daiginjo is made with rice that has been refined to 50% or less of its original size. Junmai daiginjos are light, elegant, complex, and refined. Some can be wonderfully aromatic, as well. Many have concentrated fruitiness. Descriptions like candied fruit, cotton candy, over-ripe fruit, juicy can be used to describe junmai daiginjo; however, there is a wide, wide range and it is impossible to categorize entirely.

Honjozo  本醸造  is the “other side” of junmai, in being made with rice that is polished to 70% or less. However, junmai broke ranks more than ten years ago and now “Junmai” does not have a polishing rate minimum, only the requirement that is “pure rice.” However, Honjozo must still be made with 70% polished rice. Also, we like to use the term “honjozo type” to refer to all sake that has distilled spirit added. In Japan, “aruten” would be used, but, for simplicity, we use “honjozo type.” 

Ginjo  吟醸  is sake that is made with rice which has been polished to 60% or less and uses distilled spirit. It is still very premium sake. Ginjos are generally lighter on palate, more rounded, and drier than junmai ginjos.

Daiginjo  大吟醸 is sake that is made with rice that has been polished to 50% or less. “Daiginjo” can also refer to the level, including junmai daiginjo. 

Kimoto 生酛  Started in the 1700s, the kimoto method requires saké brewers to mush up the yeast starter with bamboo paddles. Mushing the yeast starter tightens the mixture and removes oxygen. As a result, lactic bacteria cannot easily survive and it naturally produces lactic acid. Kimoto saké tends to be wild, funky, gamey, layered, and rich. Kimotos can also have greater length of flavor.

Yamahai   山廃   In the early 1900s, sake makers learned that all of the mushing and mashing of kimoto was not necessary and if they left the shubo, the yeast starter, then lactic bacteria acid would naturally be produced. Yamahai is an abbreviation for “yama-oroshi hai-shi.” “Yama-oroshi” was the mushing and mashing of rice and water, “hai-shi” meant “to quit.” So, Yama-oroshi Hai-shi became “yamahai.” They quite mushing and mashing and just covered the shubo and kept it cold, and carefully monitored. 

Sokujo  速醸  The sokujo method is the modern method of making the “shubo,” yeast starter. Out of kimoto and then yamahai, brewers experimented and learned they could just add lactic acid to the yeast starter before they added yeast. The increased acid plus cold temperatures enabled the sake yeast starter to battle damaging bacteria and deliver a cleaner style. Thus, the more certain the presence of lactic acid, the less risk and the increased ability to produce a “clean” style sake. You won’t see “sokujo,” on a label because all sakes are made using this modern method, unless they are labeled as yamahai, kimoto, bodai moto, or some other variation. 

Genshu  原酒 is sake which has not been diluted with water after fermentation. Typically, genshu will be 18-20% alcohol by volume versus 15% to 16% for standard, diluted, sake. Genshu is generally released and marketed as a special product. At the Saiya Brewery, makers of Yuki No Bosha, all of YNB is genshu. Because all Yuki No Bosha is genshu, they don’t even say it on the label. It’s just how it is.  

Namazake  生酒 is sake that has not been pasteurized. Almost all sake is pasteurized twice to maintain stability. Because it is not pasteurized, nama-zake has a raw, brash personality and bright, yeasty notes, especially on the nose. Namazake is usually released in the Spring after it is freshly pressed as “shiboritate namazake,” maybe adding on “genshu.” However, there are year-round namazakes that are usually “nama chozo.” Nama chozo are bottled, stored at super cold temperatures and then pasteurized in the bottle right before shipping out. In reverse, “nama zume” sake is bottled as nama, pasteurized, stored and then shipped. 

Hiyaoroshi, ひやおろし is Fall Release, Seasonal Sake. Hiyaoroshi is nama zume, so pasteurized right after bottling but not before shipping, that is released in the Fall after “ageing” in the bottle at cold temperature for a few months. The fall seasonal Hiyaoroshi’s are eagerly anticipated. 

Namazake Genshu   生酒原酒  is unpasteurized, undiluted sake. It is almost always released during the spring. Like genshu and namazake, it should be refrigerated.

Nigori  にごり, literally meaning “cloudy sake,” is sake with the lees still in the bottle. Sake makers achieve this by running the sake through a coarser filter or by adding the lees back in after pressing. Nigori typically exhibits notes of coconut and tropic fruit. Nigoris can range in thickness from super-thick “doboroku” to lighter “usunigori.” Nigoris should be served chilled. 

Seimaibuai   精米歩合  is the degree to which the rice used in a saké is polished. It is always expressed as the percentage of the original rice grain that is left. Thus, a seimaibuai of 70% means that 30% has been stripped away.

Nihonshudo  日本酒度,  the dryness rating of a saké, is always expressed as a positive or negative number, with the range being from -6 to +7 or higher. Saké with a nihonshudo of +2 and lower is generally on the sweet side, while heading up to +3 or +4 is getting drier. We don’t often employ this term because we want people to discover for themselves.

Acidity  酸度  Acidity is stated on a bottle of saké in Japan, with low acidity being around 1.1 and high acidity being over 2.0. Like nihonshudo, we don’t use this term very often so people discover for themselves.

Masu  升: a masu is a square box used for serving saké.

Go  一合: one go is 180ml of saké. A yongobin is a “four-go-bottle,” or a 720ml.

Shou is 1.8L of sake. An ishoubin is one of those big bottles of sake you see at Japanese restaurants.

Koku: one koku is 180L and is the standard measure of production volume for a sake brewery. A brewery that is less than 1,000 koku is considered small, 3,000 medium-small, and anything close to or over 10,000 to be large.

Sakagura means sake brewery, and is a combination of the words “sake,” changed to saka, and kura, changed to gura, meaning “brewery.”

Shuzou or Shuzouten is the commercial term for a sakagura, or sake brewery. It is best translated as “brewing company,” whereas the sakagura is the brewery itself. Although confusing to consumers, the brewing company name is almost always different from the brand name of the saké.

The toji is the brewmaster. There are several regional toji guilds in Japan.

Kurabito means “brewery people,” but we translate it as “brewers” throughout our literature.

The kuramoto is the head of the brewery, its owner, or president.

sugidama, or sakabayashi, is a ball made of cedar branches that is hung in front of a sakagura. Fresh sugidama are hung at the beginning of October when the brewing season begins. The sugidama turns brown as the winter progresses and it is said that when it is entirely brown, in the spring, then the saké is,