Sake FAQ: 5 Questions Japanese Customers Commonly Ask About Sake

Greetings Sake Lovers, welcome to another KURAND Magazine article that introduces you to the world of sake.

Outside Japan there is probably an image that everyone in Japan is an expert about sake, but many Japanese people will happily confess their ignorance of sake. It is nothing to be embarrassed about. How many people out of the general French populace would confidently claim they are experts about wine? The point is that there are still a lot of sake novices out there, so we decided to compile a little FAQ from the questions our staff often get asked to help guide you through the often confusing world of sake.

This article was originally created for a Japanese speaking audience, but the terms introduced may help you to communicate with your Japanese friends or drinking partners in Japan.

1. What is the Difference Between Tanrei and Noujun?

Tanrei = light (as in light flavor)
Noujun = rich (as in rich flavor)

Japan’s regional styles can generally be divided into these two flavor classifications. Niigata is probably the most famous prefecture for tanrei sake and Hyogo is the most famous for Noujun.
Using these words can really help you to find sake that matches your preference when ordering in Japan.

2. What is the Difference Between Amakuchi and Karakuchi?

Amakuchi is Japanese for sweet and karakuchi is the Japanese for dry. Many foreign visitors also want to know how to identify sweet and dry sake.

It is natural to want to know whether a sake is sweet but if we compare it with wine, due to the lack of tannin and acidity, sake generally falls into the sweet category. To elaborate, sake is made from rice which contains starch that gets broken down into glucose, so the finished sake inherently contains a lot more sweet components, to begin with.

Although it is normally possible to detect sugar on the tongue, the sake will rarely be cloying or sticky because the brewer will normally use the acidity (although low compared to wine) to round out the sweetness.

Furthermore, there are different levels of sweetness. The sweetness and dryness of sake is measured using a hydrometer, which measures the density of liquids relative to water. If you cast your mind back to those boring science lessons, you will remember that the denser a liquid is the more it displaces its weight in the water and the more of it will float above the surface, the same science that allows boats to float on water. See the diagram below.

In this case, the Baume scale is measuring the density of glucose in the sake. More glucose will make the sake denser which will cause the sake to float/rise above the water line. The measure on the side of the hydrometer will then read a minus number. The opposite will happen if it is dry and there are fewer sugars present and it will read as a plus. So, + is dry and – is sweet. This scale is called the nihonshudo in Japanese or sake meter value (SMV) in English.

With a few rare exceptions, as a general rule of thumb, the lower the alcohol strength, the more residual sugar—generally due to a shorter fermentation and less sugar being converted into alcohol—the sweeter the sake. Generally, anything below 14% is going to be medium sweet upwards and anything above 15% is going to fall into the dry category.

This past articles about sweet and dry sake delves even deeper into the subject: Sweet and Dry Archive

What is the Difference Between Junmai and Junmai Ginjo?

Sake displaying the word junmai on the label has been brewed with only rice, water, koji and yeast. This is important because there is actually a category of sake where a little-distilled alcohol is added. This category is referred to as aruten in Japanese or non-junmai outside Japan. Each category is a part of something called the Special Designation Grade System and is made up of 3 sub-grades. Grades from the alcohol added category are identified by the absence of the word junmai. The junmai category is made up of the grades, junmai, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. The latter two grades are of the ginjo type, made with rice that has had more of its outer layers removed or polished away. The outer layers contain proteins, lipids, vitamins and minerals which can create unwanted off-flavors, so polishing generally (but not always) create a more refined sake. The rule for junmai ginjo is that no more than 60% of the rice grain must remain after polishing. As well as the lower polishing ratio, the word ginjo generally indicates that the sake has a fruity and floral aroma which is produced by fermenting at a lower temperature. This special bouquet is actually called ginjo as well. Although the aroma is the biggest defining characteristic, the flavor profiles of junmai ginjo and junmai tend to be very different as well. A straight up junmai tends to have more of cereal, rice-derived aroma, higher acidity, and more body; while junmai ginjo tends to be more elegant, refined and lighter, although it is important to note that there is a myriad of exceptions and plenty of overlap. Finally, note that a non-ginjo junmai does not have any polishing ratio rule.

Above is a diagram that explains the Special Designation System in more detail. Please also see the below archives of past articles to learn more about rice polishing, its effects and the grades:

Archive 1

Archive 2

What is the Difference Between Nigorizake and Doburoku?

The difference is simple: one is filtered; the other isn’t.

The tax law in Japan states that in order to label a product as sake, the solids must have been separated from the liquid through filtration/pressing. Doburoku does not undergo this filtration. Doburoku is actually a product category all unto itself. And it is as simple as that. So why is nigorizake opaque? Why can you see solids suspended in the liquid? The law states that sake must be filtered. What it does not state is by how much. In other words, brewers can partially or coarsely filter sake and it will still qualify as sake. Brewers simply use a filter mesh or cloth with bigger holes in it to let more of the solids through into the final product.

Please see these archives of past articles about doburoku and nigorizake for more information:

Doburoku Archive

Nigorizake Archive

What Does the Word Nama Indicate?

Whether it has been pasteurized or not. The word nama means that it hasn’t.

Freshly fermented sake is very unstable because there are residual yeast and koji enzymes that at the right temperature will reactivate, restarting the starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol processes that then alter the structure and flavor characteristics of the sake. This instability ultimately gives the sake an inherently short shelf life and creates the need for refrigeration. The only way to stabilize sake and make it sake suitable for long-term storage is to kill all the enzymes, bacteria and microorganisms. One surefire way of doing this is to pasteurize the sake; heat it up to 60 degrees by immersing it in water or passing it through heated tubes.

Please see this archive of past articles about pasteurization and namazake for more information: Namazake Archive


We hope that this short FAQ has helped remove some of the mystery around various aspects of sake that might have had you scratching your head. Why not come and try out this newfound knowledge the next time you visit Japan. There is no better place to do this than KURAND in Tokyo, where you can taste over 100 different types of sake, carefully selected from boutique breweries all over Japan, with no time limits, all for one flat fee. We look forward to welcoming you soon.