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What is Nihonshu?

Nihonshu is a Japanese traditional fermented alcohol and so-called SAKE in English. In sakejapan.com.au, I will call Nihonshu SAKE to make things less confusing for you. Sake is sometimes called rice wine, but this expression is not quite right. Because sake is a unique type of fermented alcohol which is not a wine, neither is it exactly a beer, nor a spirit. To start the fermentation process, sake is milled down until mostly only starch remains. (Percentage of rice milling is called Seimaibuai and it's one of the very important parameter to rank sake in 4 major categories such as Honjozo, Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo) At this point, the starch is fermented to turn into sugar, and then further fermented so that the sugars convert into alcohol. This is kind of a similar way to produce beer, but the different point from beer brewing is that the starch decomposition in sake is not caused by enzymes from the malt, but rather from a special mold called Koji mold. After fermentation, sake is naturally cloudy from grain solids. Some sake like Nigori (unfiltered sake) is allowed to remain clouded, but the majority is filtered so its color looks clear like spirit. Sake is fairly high in alcohol for a fermented drink, ranging from 14% to 17% alcohol - as compared to 8% to 14% for most wines, or 4% to 6% for most beers.

Brewer (Kura)

It is said that there are over 1,800 sake brewers (Kura) in Japan. Each sake brewer has a Kuramoto (the owner of brewer), Kurabito (the employees who actually makes sake) and Toji (a leader of Kurabito). Toji has been the most important position for sake brewing from the ancient days and you could see the name of Toji and their origin often listed on the label of sake bottle. Each Toji groups on each region have their own methods and skills for brewing sake and they all have different tastes for picking sake rice and brew it in their own special ways.


Each regions in Japan has their general preferable flavour of sake. For example, Niigata sake is light, dry & crisp. Hokkaido sake is medium rich & semi dry. Akita sake is sweet & mild rich. Kyoto is soft, elegant & semi sweet. Hyogo is strong body & dry. Hiroshima is fruity, medium rich & semi dry etc.

Nihonshu Parameter



Table Wine. 75% of the whole sake product. No Grade.


Premium Sake. 25% of the whole sake product.

Seimaibuai (rice milling rate) 70% or less. Small amount of distilled alcohol added for smoothening flavor and pulling extra fragrance of rice. Generally taste is light and earthy.
Junmai means 100% pure rice sake without any additives such as alcohol, sugars and starches. No milling rate required (used to be 70% at least). Generally, Junmai has clean and smooth flavor with medium body & richness.
Seimaibuai 60% or less. Ginjo is made with extra elements such as special Ginjo yeast & low temperature long term fermentation. Generally, Ginjo has nice fruity & flowery fragrance called Ginjoka and delicate flavour. Ginjo without any additives is called Junmai Ginjo.
The absolute top grade premium sake. Seimaibuai 50% or less. Daiginjo is made with extra care and top grade sake rice such as Yamadanishiki, Miyamanishiki or Gohyakumangoku. Generally Daiginjo has a beautiful Ginjoka & complicated layers of flavor. Mostly drink in cold or room temperature. Daiginjo without any additives is called Junmai Daiginjo.

Basically the grade is determined by Seimaibuai, the rice polishing rate. (You can easily find the polishing rate on front or back label.) The reason to polish the rice is simply to get rid of unnecessary elements such as fats, proteins and minerals that are detrimental to the sake brewing process and leave the starch (Shinpaku) neatly.

Seimaibuai is a degree of rice milling. It means the leftover weight after polishing. For example, Seimaibuai 70% means that at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been milled away. In general, the lower the number goes, the more the fragrance and delicacy of taste will appear. You can find Seimaibuai easily listed somewhere on label. The powder that is ground away (called Nuka) is often used in Japanese style cakes and for livestock feed. Nothing is wasted indeed.
High quality premium sake is made from special sake rice. Sake rice is different from eating rice and it has dozens of types. However, there are only a handful of them that are really famous. Yamadanishiki rice (Hyogo, Okayama & Fukuoka), Miyamanishiki rice (Iwate, Akita &Yamagata etc), Gohyakumangoku rice (Niigata, Fukushima, Toyama & Ishikawa) and Omachi rice (Okayama) are the most outstanding sake rice. Each rice has own unique character for its fragrance, sweetness, richness and Umami.
Sake is fairly high in alcohol for a fermented drink, ranging from 14% to 17% alcohol - as compared to 8% to 14% for most wines, or 4% to 6% for most beers.
Specific gravity is measured on a scale weighing the same amount of water at 4ºC and sake at 15ºC. It indicates how much of the sugars created from the starches in the rice converted to alcohol, and how much remained to contribute to sweetness. The sweeter the sake is, the lower the number gets. The break-even point between sweet sake and dry sake is +3 these days. Please be aware that this parameter is affected by acidity, temperature, accompanying food and even your health condition so this can be only used as an approximate indicator.
The measure of acidity contents in sake. Acidity affects the way the flavour spreads and also the feeling of sweet and dry. The higher the number gets, the dryer the taste gets. But it also depends on the balance with amino acid. The range is quite narrow and generally its between1.0 ~ 1.8.
Amino Acidity
The measure of acidity contents in sake. There are almost 20 and more different amino acids in sake. A low number generally indicates a delicate sake with a narrow bandwidth of flavor, and a higher number indicates a richer, settled sake, often with significant more "umami." Normally, amino acidity in sake is about 1.3—1.7 degrees.
Yeast (Kobo)
Yeast is, same to Koji mold, a very important microbe for sake brewing. Yeats transforms sugars into alcohol. It mainly affects fragrance and flavour. There are dozens of yeast strains and each of them has its own character which mostly affects fragrance but also flavour. At the moment, there are 15 common yeast strains which have been assigned numbers such as Yeast #7 & Yeast #9 by the Central Brewer Union in Japan since early 1900s. (Yeast #9 is the most common yeast for Ginjo due to its fantastic fragrance creative ability and fairly healthy constitution during fermentation. These days, developing yeasts by local brewers is getting more popular and they have been trying hard to develop the better matching yeast with their local rice and water to improve the fragrance and quality of sake. (E.g. Alps Kobo from Nagano and Akita Kobo from Akita) If you can pay a little bit of attention for Kobo listed on the label, you might be able to tell the characters of each Kobo in a near future.
Water is another important element to make good sake. There are famous places for good water in Japan such as Hyogo, Kyoto, Fukushima, Toyama & Hiroshima.
• Miyamizu – Nada area in Kobe, Hyogo Pref. Strong & dry sake called Otoko sake (Male sake)
• Fushimizu – Fushimi area in Kyoto. Soft & sweet sake called Onna sake (Female sake)
Good elements in water for sake making – Manganese, Potassium & Calcium.
Bad elements in water for sake making – Iron, Manganese & Copper

Process of Making Nihonshu (total period: 6-12 weeks)

1. Polishing (Seimai)
Rice is milled down until mostly only Starch remains. It takes around 2-3 days. The rice grain has a lot of protein, fat and other impurities which become the causes to reduce the fragrance and the color. To avoid that, rice is ground away between 30% up to 65%. (Percentage of rice milling is called SEIMAIBUAI and it's one of the very important parameter to rank sake in 4 major categories such as Honjozo, Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo)

2. Wash, soak and steam rice
It only takes 1 day.

3. Making Koji
The most important process of sake making. Sprinkling Koji Mold on steamed rice and leave them for 35 – 48 hours. The starch is decomposed and turned into sugar. Temperature control is very important for Koji production because it mainly determines the flavour of Sake. It is made in a special room called Koji Muro which is maintained at a high temperature & humidity. The condition of Koji & temperature are reviewed and maintained by Toji & Kurabito once every 3-4 hours constantly during this process. Intense labor work over 2 days will be required for Koji making.

4. Making Moto
Mixing finished Koji, yeast, steamed rice & water. Sugar will be turned into alcohol by yeast & further fermentation period. (2-4 weeks / Quick 14 days / Yamahai + Kimoto 28 days)

5. Making Moromi (the Mash)
More Koji, more steamed rice and more water are added into Moto in three successive stages over 4 days. The fermentation process will last for 18 – 32 days.

6. Pressing
Once the fermentation is finished, sake is pressed and Moromi is divided into Seishu (clear sake) and Sakekasu (the white lees).

7. Filtering
Pressed sake is filtered through powdered carbon to be refined. Unwanted flavour elements and sake’s natural amber color can be removed by filtering so these day, many breweries do not filter their sake to keep sake’s natural distinctiveness.

8. Aging
Most of new sake is pasteurized once (Called Hiire) to kill bacteria & unnecessary yeast elements. Then it is stocked in the tank and left to age about 6 months.

Drinking Tip

Sake can be served cold, warm or hot, depending on the mood and preference of the drinker, the quality of sake, the season and the food to go with. Because the heat can destroy the fragrance and true flavour of sake, generally, most premium sake like Daiginjo or Ginjo should be served slightly chilled to get the best of it. (In fact, heating sake is originally started to mask the undesirable flavour of lower quality sake.) However, funny thing is that sake presents different personalities at different temperatures. So as I mentioned before, you should choose the temperature of sake as your preference depending on the situation. I totally understand that you just want to heat up sake in a cold day when you are having hot food like Nabe or Oden. So you should just try sake in different temperatures and find out which works the best for you. Here I listed some sake drinking tips. Just remember them as a general guideline.

Daiginjo, Ginjo or other premium sake is good to be drunk lightly chilled to feel it's beautiful Ginjo fragrance and complex of different flavour.

Sake can be enjoyed in 5 different levels of temperature. Hot (55 - 45 degrees), Warm (40 - 30 degrees), Room Temperature (30 - 20 degrees), Chilled (15 - 5 degrees) and on the rock (10 - 5 degrees.) To warm up your sake, you can boil water up to 80-90 degrees in a saucepan and leave your sake instrument (the one designed to be warmed up) in it for a few minutes. Or simply you can microwave sake in a sake instruments (the one designed to be microwaved.) for about 1 min.

I reckon light and smooth sake will go well with lightly flavour food such as grilled fish and vegetables. Rich fragrance sake like Daiginjo or Ginjo will go well with Sushi and Sashimi. Sake with rich sweet body will go well with strong flavour food such as Teriyaki chicken and Steak. Fresh, clean and smooth flavour sake like Junmai will go well with Tempura or Gyoza. Please try lots of different types of food and sake combination to find your preference.

Courtesy of Nakao Sake Brewery Co., Ltd.