Sake Variants ~ Part Two
In the first installment of this exploration of sake variants and the related terminology, we focused on some of the more common terms, related to methods and techniques ranging from the final stages before bottling all the way back through the brewing process to the first stages of fermentation. This time we’ll cast the net a bit wider, including terms that describe more general attributes, less common processes, and some variants only produced during certain times of year.
生一本 kiippon refers to junmai sake that has been made within the confines of a single production site. While this is the norm for most breweries nowadays (especially premium sake-wise), for the big players this was once a different story. Back in the Edo Period, when sake consumption was at an all time high, the bigger brewers could not produce enough sake to satisfy the overwhelming demand. The solution was to outsource some of their sake production to smaller breweries in order to help fill the gap.
Eventually this had gotten so far out of hand that around half or more of the overall sake produced was outsourced to a brewery other than the one on the label, and the public was not happy about it. In an attempt to placate their customers, the industry invented the term kiippon as a means to guarantee the provenance of what was inside the bottle. Bear in mind that this was mainly in relation to the mass-produced 普通酒 (“futsu-shu”) of the day, and with consumption of this kind of sake at all time low right now, the term is purely used as a quality indicator.
Finishing (And Beyond)
貴醸酒 kijoshu is a special type of sake where the last of the three step brewing method (or 三段仕込 “sandan jikomi”) features finished sake being added to the 醪 (“moromi”), or fermentation mash, instead of the usual water. This results in sake with a sweet, rich, velvety character in both aroma and flavour, often leading it to be compared to (and indeed substituted for) dessert wine. Kijoshu is not common, even in Japan, and if you do happen to find some it has usually been aged as well.
古酒 koshu, literally meaning “old sake”, is applied to sake that has been aged for an extended period in either tank or bottle, ranging anywhere from 2 to 20 years or more. While the concept of aging sake was not widespread back in the day, it is one that is certainly gaining attention in recent years due to the worldwide popularity of sake. The aging process changes the colour of sake toward a gold or amber hue, and creates complex aromas and condensed flavours, with well-rounded and richer texture.
樽酒 taruzake, meaning “cask sake”, refers to sake that has undergone some maturation in traditional 樽 (“taru”), or Japanese cedar barrels, imbuing it with the flavour and aroma of the timber. Prior to modern industrial glass-making, cedar barrels were necessary as a means of transporting sake over long distances, rather than a stylistic choice. These days it is usually bottled after maturation, although casks of various sizes are still commercially available and a common sight at traditional wedding ceremonies and local festivals, where they are broken open with a wooden mallet before the crowd.
発泡性清酒 happo-sei seishu or, as it is increasingly referred to, スパークリング (“sparkling”) refers to sake that is carbonated, which can be made one of two ways. The first uses 二次醗酵 (“niji-hakko”), or “secondary fermentation”, in which case the action of the yeast will produce the gas naturally, while the second involves injecting 炭酸ガス (“CO2 gas”) directly during the bottling stage. If you examine the label carefully, you should be able to determine which method has been used, based on the presence of the terms above. This is sake’s answer to Champagne!
Harnessing the Flow
The traditional method of pressing sake involves placing the moromi (fermentation mash) inside cotton bags, then loading it into a massive wooden box called a 槽 (“fune”), where a combination of gravity and force is used to extract the fermented liquid. The sake that results from this process is divided into three portions and named accordingly.
あらばしり arabashiri refers to the free flow of sake before any pressure is applied to the cotton bags. This portion of the sake has a fresh flavour and more subtle aromas when compared to sake pressed by automated machinery.
中取り nakatori refers to the “middle” run of the sake, after the free flow, when pressure is applied to the cotton bags. It is regarded as the best portion of the sake and is often the mainstay for sake competitions. It has a more balanced flavour and mix of aromas.
* The final run of sake, referred to as 責め (“seme”), is produced when more pressure is applied to squeeze any remaining liquid out of the moromi (fermentation mash). This portion contains a lot of unbalanced flavours and is not used on its own, usually being blended back into the portions described above for a more balanced end product. As such, this term will not feature on the label in the way that arabashiri and nakatori occasionally do.
雫酒 shizuku-zake , or “drip sake”, refers to sake where the moromi (fermentation mash) has been placed into cotton bags and then suspended in the air, using only gravity to extract the liquid. 袋吊り (“fukuro-tsuri”) refers to the hanging of the cotton bags themselves, while 斗瓶囲い (“tobingakoi”) refers to the container that is used to collect the sake below. Any of these terms can appear on the bottle, and at the end of the day they all mean the same thing. Sake that is collected using the drip method has a more elegant and complex flavour, while the cost also tends to be higher, due to the amount of labour required and lower yield.
おりがらみ origarami and おり酒 orizake have their names derive from 滓 ori, which is a sediment that settles at the bottom of the tank during the ten days it is left to stand after pressing and before filtering. Orizake refers to sake with sediment left behind, although it is usually added back into the sake later in the production process. While technically similar to nigorizake, in the sense that some of that rice solids are left behind, orizake is distinct both visually and in terms of character. It tends to have subtle rice notes compared to standard sake, and the ori, made up of tiny flecks of rice, can sometimes be seen when poured into a clear glass.
直汲み jikagumi refers to the pressing of sake straight into the bottle, with the bottles usually shipped out as-is, without any filtering, diluting, or pestuaristion). The brewers believe that this helps to minimise the inevitable oxidisation of the sake, by keeping it as fresh as possible. This is not without risk, however, as it can be volatile and prone to spoil if not handled correctly.
A Sake for All Seasons
Every year, at specific points in the calendar, breweries all around Japan release limited runs of seasonal sake, in addition to their regular releases.
新酒 shinshu, also known as しぼりたて shiboritate, refers to the first release of new sake after the harvest season. With the sake brewing season beginning in October, new sake is released between November and April, depending on the brewery. Shinshu has a vibrant, fresher flavour compared to other sake.
夏の生酒 natsu-no-namazake, meaning “summer namazake”, is not unlike your regular namazake, but geared toward its refreshing qualities as a summer drink. Best served chilled.
ひやおろし hiyaoroshi and 秋あがり akiagari refer to sake that is finished around March, then left to age for about six months. Its release between September to November coincides with Autumn,and it tends to have a more complex aroma and flavour that matches the seasonal cuisine enjoyed at that time of year.
So here we are, at the end of another blog post jam-packed with technical terms and brewing methods, and hopefully feeling a little better prepared to decipher the masses of unfamiliar characters that confront you on a typical bottle of sake.
One important thing to note about many of the terms we have outlined in this two-part exploration is that, ultimately, it’s up to each individual brewer as to whether and which they choose to put them on the label. This puts things more in the realms of marketing than the strict criteria of the tokutei meisho-shu system that we looked at previously, so don’t be surprised if you don’t encounter these with the same regularity.
Until next time, go explore, experience, and enjoy the wonders of sake!