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How to Read Sake Labels and Choose Sake


Usually, it is hard to know the taste of sake by just checking the label. It needs years of experiences even for Japanese people. However, I would like to give you an introduction about how to read some of the sake terms which are likely to be written on the sake bottles you may want. I hope you will be able to make better choices after reading this article.

I. If you want rich-bodied sake with bitterness and deliciousness

Search for the word “無濾過生原酒” (muroka-nama-genshu). This term is a combination of the three words: “無濾過” (muroka: unfiltered), “生” (nama: unpasteurized) and “原酒” (genshu: undiluted). It is used very often because it has a good rhythm when pronounced in Japanese.

First, “無濾過”. There is a filtration process in sake making. This process removes unfavorable tastes and makes sake clearer but at the same time, the umami might also be removed. It is certain that sake labeled as “無濾過” has a strong flavor, not being filtered. Second, “生”. It means that the pasteurization process called hiire has not done yet. Unpasteurized sake has a fresher and wilder flavor than pasteurized one. Third, “原酒”. It means that no water is added to adjust alcohol by volume.

“無濾過生原酒”, which combines these three words, is surely a suitable type for those who want umami. However, since this type is easy to deteriorate, you should keep it at low temperature and avoid shaking the bottle as much as possible. The sakes which belong to this kind are...

II. If you want clear-tasted sake with a lot of fruity aromas

“吟醸酒” (Ginjo-shu) or “大吟醸酒” (Daiginjo-shu) will be the keywords. Distilled alcohol (what is known as shochu) added to these sakes before pressing, to bring out the flavors and aromas. They tend to have beautiful and brilliant aromas of apples, melons or various flowers. Added alcohol gives them sharp tastes and refreshing mouthfeel. Alcohol addition is one of the excellent techniques of sake making. I personally like this kind of sake and would like you to try at least once. The sakes which belong to this type are...

III. If you want caramellike sake with velvety umami spreading in your mouth

I recommend “熟成酒” (jukuseishu: matured sake) or “古酒” (koshu: aged sake). These types of sake have been matured slowly after being pasteurized. Rich umami like Shaoxing wine, almonds, caramel sauce or coffee harmonizes with strongly-seasoned meals. They often have golden or amber colors, because of protein and sugar cause Maillard reaction, which makes the umami stronger. The sakes which belong to this type are...

IV. If you want sparkling sake

Search for the words “活性” (kassei: active) or “スパークリング” (sparkling). There are two kinds of sparkling sake: whether the gas produced by the secondary fermentation inside the bottle like champagne does, or the gas is added directly to ordinary liquor (usually sweet one) before bottling. It doesn’t matter which is better, but generally, secondarily-fermented one tends to cost more. The sakes which belong to this type are...

V. If you want the most premium sake of the brewery!

The terms such as “出品酒” (shuppinshu: sake for exhibition), “斗瓶” (tobin) or “金賞受賞酒” (kinsho-jushoshu: Award-winning sake) will tell you to the most elegant sake.

One of the most prestigious competitions of Japanese sake is the Annual Japan Sake Awards. At the competition, the sakes are evaluated by a point-off system, so the exhibitors make the best effort to reach their ideal by refining the brewing skills. To avoid any spoilage, the exhibited sake is extracted very carefully, with as little pressure as possible. They hang some bags containing the fermentation mash (called moromi) so that the sake drips down spontaneously. This naturally-dripped sake is so fine and rare that it stocked with the special bottles called “斗瓶”, which is much smaller than the ordinary containers.

Most exhibitors display “大吟醸酒” (daiginjo-shu: with distilled alcohol added to bring out the fruity aromas). But recently, the breweries that exhibit “純米大吟醸酒” (jummai daiginjo-shu: without alcohol addition) has also increased. Please keep these sakes at low temperature, for they are freshly made. The sakes which belong to this type are...

VI. If you love sweet sake!

I recommend “貴醸酒” (kijoshu: noble brewed sake), sake which is made with sake in place of water. In the brewing process, some of the water is substituted by already brewed sake. It is extremely sweet and rich just like 'la pourriture noble' (noble rot wine). You can enjoy it both as a digestif and as syrup for ice cream.

The word “甘口” (amakuchi: the sweet side) also represents the sake’s sweet flavor. Sakes of “甘口” usually made by having the fermentation stopped before all sugar turns into alcohol. Although there’s a trend that dry sake is preferred, I believe it’s also fun to try the sweet one.

I hope this article gives a better idea about the sake you might like. Please have a good time with good sake!

Thank you very much for reading.


About the Author

Hideto KITAYAMA was born in 1978 in Nada Ward, Hyogo Prefecture which is a famous region for Japanese sake. His grandfather was in love and crazy about sake. Because the sake gene that he carries, he started his pub (Izakaya) and a liquor shop business from the age of 30. After he tasted more than 2000 kinds of sake per year, his sake knowledge and skills have improved. He has certificates of Kiki Sake-shi, International Kiki Sake-shi and Sake Lecturer. To fulfill his dream which is introducing traditional Japanese sake culture to the world, he is performing many kinds of activities such as organizing sake events, sake business consulting and selling sake online globally on Ippin platform.

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