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Origin Sake 2016

Kojima, Kurashiki, Okayama-Shi, Japan

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Reading Sake Labels

Buying sake in Japan can often be a daunting task. The biggest issue stems from the notoriously difficult Japanese writing system, known as kanji, which although provide the labels with beautiful aesthetics, can often be the source of much confusion for those who can't read them. Classification, brewing method, rice variety, and even the strain of yeast, are all important factors when deciding on what to buy. However, these crucial pieces of information will often be written in kanji, rather than the easier to understand romaji, a romanization of the Japanese language.

 

The good news, however, is that the list of vocabulary needed to gain a basic understanding of the various styles and rice varieties is actually quite short. Furthermore, taking the time to learn these kanji that most frequently appear will alleviate much of the difficulties that consumers often face when buying sake. Therefore, this page will detail and explain some of the common things you will be likely to encounter on a label, and provide you with the basic knowledge to make an informed decision when searching for that perfect bottle of sake.

Label Types

1

2

It goes without saying that labels nowadays come in a wide variety of different styles and designs. Each brewery is different, and there is no official blueprint for how a label should look or, with the exception of alcohol content etc, what information it should contain. The above label falls into the relatively modern category in terms of its design. However, the information provided is virtually all in Japanese, and still maintains many traditional elements. For example, Point 1 displays the specification of the sake including the alcohol content, the locality of the rice, and to what percentage it was polished. Below is a breakdown of the key information in Japanese:

 

Alcohol Content: アルコール分16%

Rice Locality: 岡山県産 (Product of Okayama Prefecture)

 

Polishing Percentage: 精米歩合50%(seimaibuai)

 

To the left of this content at Point 2 is the rice variety, classification of the sake, and of course the brand name which is also written in romaji below. The rice variety is a local variety from Okayama prefecture, and not cultivated in any great amount outside of this region. However, it is certainly worth remembering at least the top 5 rice varieties of Yamada-Nishiki 山田錦, Omachi 雄町, Gohyakumangoku 五百万石, Miyamanishiki 美山錦 and Akitasake-Komachi  秋田酒こまち. (The remaining top ten most used rice varieties are located at the bottom of this page)  

Rice Variety: 朝日(Asahi rice)

Classification: 純米大吟醸酒 (junmai 純米 daiginjo 大吟醸酒)

Brand Name: 十八盛酒造 (Juhachi Zakari Shuzo)

The remaining information on the far left contains the company address and the standard disclaimer about the legal drinking age in Japan (お酒は20歳なってから). However,  this particular label also has additional information about the rice variety. As consumers have become increasingly more aware of the different styles of sake and various rice varieties, this kind of information will surely appear more often in the future. In this case, as all of the necessary information is displayed on the fornt label there is no need for a back label.

This next label is a more modern style that is purely focused on aesthetics rather than displaying any detailed information. As a result of this, these labels often require an additional reverse label 裏ラベル such as the one below. This allows the producers to convey detailed specifications and legally required information without having to sacrifice the design of the front label.

3

This next example is a particularly detailed reverse label, and is indicative of the style that now caters for a much more informed consumer. From the top, the same information from Point 1 is included that details the brand, rice variety and its locality. However, this one includes more detail as to how it was made and how it should be stored. As these particular kanji all require more explanation, I will deal with them individually below.

 

Specification: 無濾過生原酒 (muroka nama genshu)

muroka 無濾過: Refers to sake that hasn't been filtered since it was pressed.

 

nama 生: Refers to sake that hasn't been pasteurised.

genshu 原酒: Refers to sake that hasn't been diluted with additional water.

 

As a result of it being unpastearised, this label also tells us that this particular sake requires refrigeration. These are the three kanji characters to the right of the specification marked Point 3 要冷蔵 (youreizou).

In addition to the first label, this one also discloses the strain of yeast that was used. As this can be a very important factor in determining the style of sake, in particular the aromatics, it is certainly worth the effort to memorise the characters associated with the most common strains of yeast. However, as these are mostly given numerical names, they will often be easy to spot if you remember the following two kanji: 協会 (kyoukai). These refer to yeast 酵母 (koubo) that were issued by the Brewing Society of Japan, and make up the majority of the sake that is brewed nowadays.

Yeast Variety Used: 採用 (sayou) and 酵母 (koubo)

Specific Yeast: 教会九号 (kyoukai kugou) or Brewing Society Yeast #9

Currently, the most commonly used strains are as follows:

Number 6六号, Number 7 七号, Number 9 九号, Number 10 十号, Number 14 十四合, Number 15 十五号, Number 1801 十八丸一, Number 1901 十九丸一

This last label is often referred to as a shoulder, or kata 肩 in Japanese. Although these are certainly more rare, they often contain crucial information that help the sake standout to the consumer. This particular example notes the following:

muroka 無濾過 : (As before, meaning unfiltered after pressing)

hiire 火入れ: This time the sake was pasteurised, and the kanji literally means that "heat has been applied". This means the sake is more stable than its nama 生 counterpart and tends to be slightly more balanced and mellow.

binkan kyurei 瓶燗急冷: These next kanji are actually related to the previous ones and refer to the specific method by which it was pasteurised: bin 瓶 means bottle and kan 燗 means warmed. Therefore, this means that the pasteurisation took place inside the bottle, rather than the less time consuming method of doing it whilst in a special tank. The next two simply means that it was then quickly cooled so as to not drastically affect the delicate aromas and flavours of the sake.

Additional Vocabulary

Additional Vocabulary

Some Prefecture Names

  • Akita 秋田

  • Fukushima 福島

  • Koichi 高知

  • Hyogo 兵庫

  • Niigata 新潟

  • Yamagata 山形

  • Hiroshima 広島

  • Okayama 岡山

  • Kyoto 京都

  • Ishikawa 石川

  • Yamaguchi 山口

  • Fukuoka 福岡

  • Ehime 愛媛

  • Fukui 福井

  • Tokushima 徳島

  • Miyagi 宮城

  • Gifu 岐阜

  • Aomori 青森

  • Kagawa 香川

  • Aichi 愛知

  • Nara 奈良

  • Shiga 滋賀

  • ​Saga 佐賀

  • Nagano 長野

  • Shimane 島根

  • Tochigi 栃木

  • Yamanashi 山梨

  • Chiba 千葉

Frequently Seen Vocabulary

  • Pasteurised 火入れ

  • Limited Edition 限定品

  • Special Grade 特別

  • Just Pressed Sake 搾りたて

  • Drip Pressed Sake 雫

  • The middle and most prized part of a batch of pressed Sake 中汲み

  • Specially pressed Sake using a Fune device 船搾り

  • Dry Sake 辛口

  • Sweet Sake 甘口

  • Cloudy Sake にごり

  • Sake aged in Wooden Vats 樽酒

  • Autumn Sake ひやおろし

  • Summer Sake 夏酒

  • Yamahai 山廃

  • Kimoto 生酛

  • Bodaimoto 菩提元

  • ​Additional Alcohol added before pressing (Not fortified) アルコール添加

  • Light Bodied / Clean 淡麗

  • Full Bodied / Rich 芳醇

  • Pasteurised 火入れ

  • Limited Edition 限定品

  • Special Grade 特別

  • Just Pressed Sake 搾りたて

  • Drip Pressed Sake 雫

  • The middle and most prized part of a batch of pressed Sake 中汲み

  • Specially pressed Sake using a Fune device 船搾り

  • Dry Sake 辛口

  • Sweet Sake 甘口

  • Cloudy Sake にごり

  • Sake aged in Wooden Vats 樽酒

  • Autumn Sake ひやおろし

  • Summer Sake 夏酒

  • Yamahai 山廃

  • Kimoto 生酛

  • Bodaimoto 菩提元

  • ​Additional Alcohol added before pressing (Not fortified) アルコール添加

  • Light Bodied / Clean 淡麗

  • Full Bodied / Rich 芳醇

Top 10 Sake Rice Varieties (2018)

  • Yamada Nishiki 山田錦
  • Gohyakumongoku 五百万石

  • Miyama Nishiki 美山錦

  • Omachi 雄町

  • Akitasake Komachi 秋田酒こまち

  • Hattan Nishiki Number 1 八反錦1号

  • Hitogokochi ひとごこち

  • Dewasansan 出羽燦々

  • Ginfu 吟風

  • ​Koshitanrei 越淡麗