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Unveiling the Art of Japanese Sake: A Bartender's Guide to Exploring Japanese Sake Types

japanese sake
Japanese Sake


In the realm of mixology, where innovation meets tradition, Japanese sake emerges as an exquisite elixir, captivating both seasoned bartenders and aspiring mixologists alike. Renowned for its diverse flavors and meticulous craftsmanship, sake embodies the essence of Japan’s rich cultural heritage. Exploring the various types of Japanese sake unveils a spectrum of tastes, aromas, and brewing techniques, offering bartenders a treasure trove of possibilities to elevate their craft. Whether honing skills through online bartender training or attending a bartending school, understanding these sake varieties becomes an invaluable asset in the world of mixology.

Sake is a clear alcoholic beverage which is made from fermented rice and water. The beverage has been popularly produced and consumed in Japan and it is said that Sake is an important part of the Shinto religion and contemporary Japanese culture.


While rice is the main ingredient in its production, the quality of water is no less significant in brewing good Sake. In Japan, “Sake” is a term which would mean beverages in general. The closest phonetic sound for Sake is SAH-keh. But the specific term for Sake is Nihonshu, pronounced as nee-HON-shoo, which is the same as the Japanese liquor.


Since Sake is made from rice, many English speaking people refer Sake as rice wine, possibly because, like wine, Sake is not carbonated and has similar alcohol content. But it would be more accurate to draw a parallel between Sake and Beer because Sake is also brewed like Beer. Beer uses barley grains for its production while Sake is made from rice. But such comparisons aside, Sake stands in a category of its own.


Sake may have similar taste profiles to wine at times, but it does not follow the wine production method of fermenting the sugar present in grapes or other fruits. Similarly, it may be true that both Sake and Beer require first converting starches present in the grains to sugar before alcohol could materialize in these products. However, there is a marked difference between the two brewing processes. In Beer, the conversion from starch to alcohol takes place in distinct stages. First starch gets converted to sugar and then sugar gets converted to alcohol. In the making of Sake, however, these conversions take place in a single step. Another major difference between Wine, Beer and Sake is related to these beverages’ alcohol contents which are typically 3-9% for Beer, 9-16% for Wine and 18-20% for Sake. 


Sake Types


Sake consists of two basic types, Futsu-shu and Tokutei meisho-shu. Futsu-shu is the ordinary Sake comparable to table wine and makes up the biggest production amounts. Tokutei meisho-shu, on the other hand is a special designation Sake or a premium Sake which is distinguished by factors like the finesse with which polishing of rice has been accomplished, percentage of brewer’s alcohol added or the complete absence of brewer’s alcohol. According to the National Tax Agency of Japan, who mandates Sake quality labeling standards, premium Sakes, or Tokutei meisho-shu, are divided into eight categories.



Special Designation Sake


  • Junmai Daiginjō-shu (Pure rice, Very Special brew): Junmai shu is made from only the white rice, more than 15% Kōji rice and water. Its rice polishing ratio is less than 50% and no alcohol is added. It is one of the most food friendly Sakes and has a stronger flavor than Honjōzō.


  • Daiginjō-shu (Very Special brew): This Sake is a variation of the above Sake with only one difference; brewers’ alcohol is added to it which must be below 10% of the weight of the rice after polishing.


  • Junmai Ginjō-shu (Pure rice, Special brew): This Sake is also called Youshu Ginji and its polishing ratio is less than 60%, with more than 15% Kōji rice. The flavor is light and crisp which comes from the outer 40% of the grains being polished away.


  • Ginjō-shu (Special brew): It is a variation of Junmai Ginjō-shu in which brewers’ alcohol is added which should be below 10% of the weight of the rice after polishing.


  • Tokubetsu Junmai-shu (Special Pure rice): It is made from special pure white rice polished to below 60% and more than 15% Kōji rice. Special brewing is employed in its production.


  • Tokubetsu Honjōzō-shu (Special Genuine brew): This Sake is similar to Tokubetsu Junmai-shu except that brewers’ alcohol is added and kept below 10% of the weight of the rice after polishing. It has a lighter flavor and is sometimes served at room temperature.


  • Junmai-shu (Pure rice): In the production of this Sake, the rice polishing ratio is below 70% with 15% Kōji rice.


  • Honjōzō-shu (Genuine brew): This Sake is also made from the rice polished to below 70% and 15% Kōji rice but with the addition of brewer’s alcohol which should be less than 10% of the weight of the rice after polishing.


Understanding Sake is not easy and overlapping tastes close matching of styles can make it even more confusing. Therefore, at the time of ordering or buying Sake, one must clearly state about the requirements like sweet flavors, strong, low alcohol content, etc. The shop or restaurant/bar will usually recommend suitable Sake based on those preferences.


Sake Varieties


Many Sakes are dependent on how they have been handled during the process of fermentation.


Some of the popular Sakes in this category are listed below:


  • Namazake is unpasteurized Sake requiring refrigerated storage. It has a much shorter shelf-life compared to the pasteurized Sakes.


  • An undiluted type of Sake is called Genshu. Most of Sakes are diluted with water for reducing the alcohol content from 18-20% to 14-16%. But Genshu is sold undiluted.


  • Muroka is Sake which has not undergone carbon-filtering. It is pressed and removed from lees as clear liquor. The purpose of not filtering is attributable to the idea of preserving aromas and flavors which are sometimes lost in carbon filtration. Muroka Sake has stronger flavors than filtered varieties.


  • Nigorizake is another type of unfiltered Sake. The Sake is not clear because it is passed through a loose mesh which separates it from the mash. Therefore, rice sediments remain in the liquor. It is not filtered thereafter. Before serving, the bottle has to be shaken well so that the sediments get thoroughly mixed.


  • Seishu in Japanese legal parlance which means clean and clear Sake. It refers to all those shakes from which solids and sediments have been completely strained out to leave behind a clear liquid. The Nigorizake described above is not Seishu as per this definition. Also, Doburoku (see below) cannot be called Seishu under Japanese law. However, Nigorizake can receive the Seishu status by being strained clear and having the lees put back in afterward.


  • Koshu is a term for "aged Sake". Most of the Sake varieties do not age well, but Koshu is made very especially, and it can age for decades. At the end of the aging process, it turns yellow in color and acquires a honeyed flavor.


  • Taruzake is Sake which is aged in wooden barrels after which it is kept in wooden casks. Cryptomeria (sugi) is the wood used for this purpose. Some people wrongly refer the wood as Japanese cedar. During ceremonies like inaugurations, business deals finalization or parties, the Sake casks are tapped.


  • Shiboritate is a name given to the Sake that has not completed the standard aging period of six-months. For this reason, the Sake is much greener and has an acidic taste. Literally the meaning of word Shiboritate in Japanese is freshly pressed indicating it has not been allowed to mature.


  • Fukurozuri is the method of separating Sake from the lees without applying external pressure. This is done by putting the mash in bags and hanging them up. Storage pots are kept below these bags and Sake slowly drips out from the bags by force of gravity. Many people also called this Sake as shizukazake, which translates to drip Sake.


  • Sake which is pressed into 18-liter bottles called Tobins is named as Tobingakoi. The brewer makes a selection of the best batch of Sake for the purpose of shipping.


  • Amazake Sake has a sweet taste and low alcohol content. It is the traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice.


  • Doburoku is a classic home-brewed Sake. Although government has banned home brewing of Sakes, Doburoku is made in some places in the style that was used in home-brewing before the ban. The process involves adding Kōji mold to steamed rice and water and allowing the mixture to ferment. Like Nigorizake this Sake too is unfiltered.


  • The term Jizake denotes locally produced Sake. It is available in premium, ultra-premium, and super ultra-premium categories, produced by local producers to meet specific requirements. It is similar to micro-brewed beer.


  • Kuroshu is made from either brown rice or unpolished rice. It is similar in taste with Chinese rice wine.


  • Teiseihaku-shu is Sake made by keeping the rice-polishing ratio deliberately high. The polishing ratio is the weight percentage after polishing. As per a belief, if the polishing ratio is low, the Sake will come out with a better potential. (But after 2005, brewers are producing teiseihaku-shu with high rice-polishing ratios of around 80% or so the flavor of rice is lent to the brewed liquor).


Other Sake Terminology


  • Nihonshu-do: Also known as Sake Meter Value (SMV) is a measure of Sake’s specific gravity, which is the ratio of Sake’s density and density of pure water. Sake with unfermented sugar is denser compared to more fermented one. Brewers commonly use an open-ended scale running generally from -5 to +10. The numbers are assigned in such a way that lower or negative numbers indicate increasing sweetness and higher positive numbers indicate drier Sake. Originally, 0 was considered to be neutral but with drastically changing preferences over the last few decades, +3 or so is considered to be neutral now. Mathematically the SMV is expressed as; SMV = {(1/Sp. Gravity) – 1} x 1443


  • Seimaibuai: A major difference between the various grades or classifications of Saké is related to its rice-polishing ratio which the Japanese call Seimaibuai (pronounced “say-my-boo-eye”). The Seimaibuai is the percentage of remaining rice by weight after polishing. Lower number denotes a better potential Sake, and such Sakes are tastier while those with higher percentage would taste like rice.


  • Kasu: The leftover solids after the Sake has been pressed and filtered are called Kasu. These are also called pressed lees and they find use in making pickles, shochu and food for the livestock. Some restaurants also serve Kasu soups



Popular Brands of Japanese Sake


Ota Shuzo


Asahi Shuzo


Hakkai Jozo


Hasegawa Shuzo


Tohei Shuzo

Koshi no Kanbai

Kikusui Shuzo



As the curtains draw on this journey through the myriad flavors of Japanese sake, it becomes evident that this ancient beverage transcends boundaries. For bartenders, delving into the nuances of sake opens doors to a realm where tradition harmonizes with contemporary mixology. Whether it’s the nuanced sweetness of Junmai or the crispness of Ginjo, each type of sake holds within it a story waiting to be told through a cocktail. Embracing the art of sake in bartending not only adds depth to the repertoire but also pays homage to a centuries-old legacy of craftsmanship and cultural richness. With the fusion of expertise gained from bartender training, the allure of Japanese sake in mixology continues to flourish, promising endless possibilities for creative libations in the ever-evolving world of bartending.




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