In part 2 of Nihonshu, A Brief Introduction. I dip into some of the basic sake terms. For anyone who wants understand the value of sake or how to better enjoy it, these terms provide the landscapt for understanding nihonshu.
The four most commonly referred to sake types - though there are other finer categorizations (see John Gauntner's comments below) - are:
Top of the heap, always a brewer’s flagship sake. Made with rice milled so that 50% or less of the original size of the grains remain, it is always an intensely crafted, complex sake, and very expensive.
A complex sake made with rice milled so that 60% of the original grain remains. Ginjoshu is fermented at lower-than-average temperatures with special yeast.
Pure sake, made simply of rice, water, and koji without the addition of sugar, starch or additional alcohol. No more than 70% of the rice grain remains after milling.
Similar to junmaishu, but with a small amount of alcohol purposefully added to enhance its fragrance.
The first two are generally reserved for special occasions, while the latter pair are for regular drinking. Namazake refers to Nihonshu that has not been pasteurized, and can fall into any of the classifications mentioned above. It needs to be drunk quickly once the bottle has been opened.
John Gauntner offers a more detailed explanation: "These days, we know how to pick our sake. There are classes or grades of sake that are legally defined that exist to help us. And we know these well: Daiginjo and junmai daiginjo, ginjo and junmai ginjo, tokubetsu honjozo and tokubetsu junmai below these, then honjozo and junmai-shu, and futsuu-shu below that. They are all legally defined, even if those definitions can be vague in areas. And while these grades are legal definitions, when it comes to indications of quality, “they’re more like guidelines” as they say in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
In other words, while daiginjo is technically a top-grade sake, you might prefer junmai or honjozo sake in general. And no one – no one – can always identify the grade of a sake on taste and aroma alone. Often? Yes. Always? No. There is too much overlap between the grades."
Nigorizake is a cloudy, whitish sake in which some of the lees have been allowed to remain. It is not a particularly delicate brew, as the sweetness of the less swamps out any delicacy in the sake, yet it is a popular late-winter/early-spring bodywarmer. Its alcohol content is generally lower than other sakes.
Sake is generally drunk cold, when it is called reishu; hot, called atsukan; or warm, called nurukan.
Connoisseurs offer even finer classifications, including hitohada luke-warm, hanabie ‘flower-chilled’ at 10 degrees, or yukibie snow-chilled at 5 degrees. The finest sake is always drunk cold, the hot options reserved for cold winter evenings. Either way, it will be served in a ceramic sake pot, with a small o-choko cup for drinking reportedly derived from the Korean word ‘chonku’, meaning ‘a small, shallow cup or dish’, or in a small square wooden or lacquered box, known as a masu. This kind of sake is known as masuzake, and is often served, gimlet-like, with a dusting of salt.
The Nihonshu-do system is a method of classification of sweetness or dryness, based on numerical scale +20 indicating an extremely dry sake, -15 an ultra sweet one. It is only a rough 'ball park' guide that, as John Gauntner explains here, is virtually ignored by the professionals.
Please remember this is just a 'basic introduction, part two'. If you already know something about nihonshu, but would like to know more, make sure to read John Gauntner's many in-depth articles here at Foodies Go Local.