According to Philip Harper, author of “The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur’s Guide”, former JET Programme participant (1988-1991), and now the sake brewmaster (toji) at Daimon Shuzo in Osaka Prefecture:
“Enjoying whatever flowers are in bloom is one of the seasonal pleasures of Japanese life. Flower-viewing revelries are not complete without sake—a drink affectionately referred to as hanami-zake.”
It’s nearly that time of year again fellow Gunmanians. Although the cold has not completely left us, the sakura tree that stands just outside the teachers’ room window at my school is nearly in full bloom. While I know that of the three sakura trees in my school’s courtyard this one is always the first to bloom, I cannot help but think about the warmer days that lie ahead. According to many of the Japanese folks I’ve spoken to, they say next week is the best time to hanami. Personally, I can’t wait to sit under the shade of a sakura tree, taking in the beauty of the Japanese spring, surrounded by good friends and good food, with sake in hand.
So why not enjoy this year’s hanami with some hanami-zake? If you walk into a proper sakaya, you will be faced with a variety of sake to choose from. It’s certainly a daunting task for the inexperienced. I, myself, sometimes find it overwhelming. Unless I come in with a specific bottle in mind, I can easily spend upwards of an hour simply perusing the numerous bottles on the shelves. I find sake labels fascinating. On one tiny piece of paper you can glean so much information about a particular sake. While I’ m by no means a “connoisseur” of sake like Mr. Philip Harper, I have learned enough to know what to look for when I shop. Here is some information I’m hoping will serve as a guide in helping you choose your next bottle of sake.
How to Read a Sake Label: Obligatory Items on a Sake Label
- Name of the Product
One thing I love when I go to a sakaya is admiring the artistic calligraphy on the bottles’ labels. Although beautiful, many Japanese people find sake bottles difficult to read. You may be lucky enough to find one that has the name of the sake in hiragana or even better yet, romaji, but those are few and far between. The staff at the sakaya can help with the reading of the name of the sake if you can’t or don’t know how to read the kanji. However, with sake’s increase in popularity overseas, more and more kuras (breweries) are making more English-friendly labels.
- Type of Sake
- Junmai(純米酒)-made with rice only
- Honjozo(本醸造)-some brewer’s alcohol is added
- Ginjo(吟醸酒)-highly milled rice, with or without alcohol added
- Daiginjo(大吟醸酒)-even more highly milled rice
- Namazake(生酒)-sake that is NOT pasteurized. It can be made from any of the types mentioned above. It should be stored in the refrigerator to prevent off flavors as a result of improper storage.
- Nigorizake-the literal translation is cloudy sake. It’s sake that has not been pressed fully, so you see bits of rice solid floating around
- Others-Sparkling Sake, Aged Sake, Shinshu(New Sake), Genshu, etc. The list goes on and on…….
- Warning Message
It’s pretty simple and straightforward. If you’re not 20 you shouldn’t be drinking sake, or any alcohol for that matter.
- Rice Polishing Ratio(精米歩合)
The rice polishing ratio, or seimaibuai, is the amount of remaining grain size after the rice has been polished or milled. The rice we eat daily is milled to roughly about 90%. That means about 10% of the outer layer has been polished away. In sake production the seimaibuai is different depending on the type of sake that’s being made. For junmai-shu and honjozo-shu sake, the ratio is 70% or less. For ginjo-shu it’s 60% or less. When daiginjo-shu is made, at least 50% of the outside grain is polished away. In some instances, especially for premium, high-grade daiginjo, the seimaibuai is 35%. A good thing to remember is that the lower the semaibuai, the higher the cost. A bottle of high-grade daiginjo can start anywhere from 3000 yen and up for a 750mL bottle.
- Ingredients (原材料)
Ah, the simplicity of sake. Its only ingredients are rice, water, and koji–jin. Koji is the mold that grows on the rice, which breaks down the starch and converts it into sugar. At the same time, this also starts the fermentation process which turns this mush of rice and water into wonderful bottled goodness.
- Name and address of brewery(shuzo)
- Percentage of Alcohol
Most sake range from about 15-18%. Sparkling sake and aged sake can be about half that amount. Still, it’s enough to get you “schwasted”!
- Date of Production
The date on which the sake was bottled. As with wine, once you open a bottle, it should be drunk within a few days.
- Seishu (清酒)
This is always, always on a sake bottle. It means “refined sake” but it isn’t commonly used when speaking about sake, except in technical or legal terms. I have found it extremely useful to distinguish between sake (清酒) and shochu (焼酎). Nothing is worse than getting excited about buying your first bottle of sake only to take a sip and have the flavour of strong, tasteless, in my opinion, shochu shock your senses.
Optional Items on a Sake Label
- Sake Meter(日本酒度)
The nihonshudo is a scale measuring how dry or sweet a sake is. It gives you a good indication of what kind of sake you’ll be drinking. Sake with a negative value is considered sweet, while sake on the positive side is considered dry. If you drink a sake with a very
high + value on the nihonshudo it is called karakuchi.
- Name of the Master Brewer
Some people may be loyal to a particular name brand of sake, and some
people are loyal to the sake made by a particular Toji-Master Brewer.
- Serving suggestions
Some breweries describe how that particular sake should be served: cold( reishu), warm , hot( atsukan), or even on the rocks.
Gunma also has a few kura, sake breweries. Perhaps the most well-known is Akagisan. However, if you happen to find a sake called Mizubasho, give it a try. It’s from a brewery in Oze in northern Gunma.
Below I’ve listed a few of my favourites:
Shinsei-Junmai Daiginjo 神聖
Shinsei, means “holy” or “heavenly” and this sake is rightly named so. I discovered this gem on a trip down to the Kansai a couple of years ago. Serve it slightly chilled to get the delectable fragrance of green apple and peach. It’s complex yet smooth, with a full taste that will fill every nook and cranny of your mouth.
Suigei—Junmai Ginjo 酔鯨
Translated into English, it means drunken whale. The name alone would make me buy it, but there’s more to this sake than just a catchy name. Very much like the sake from the southern part of Japan that have a much bigger personality compared to sake from northern Japan, Suigei has a fuller, almost heavy taste.
Plum in Snow is the English name of this sake which comes from Niigata. Niigata is famous for producing sake with a particular taste style. It’s called tanrei karakuchi. Secchubai is a prime example of this style: light, dry, and crisp which makes it easy to drink.