Introduction to Sake -- Part 3

By Matthew Citriglia, MS on April 12, 2006

This is the third and final part of Master Sommelier Matthew Citriglia's Introduction to Sake.

Drinking Sake
Now that you have all this newfound knowledge and you want to go out to your favorite sushi bar or other establishment that may have a laundry list of Sakes, how do you order it and what is the proper etiquette for drinking Sake? Traditionally Sake is bottled in 1.8 liter-sized bottles, which is equivalent to 60 ounces. A standard serving size of Sake is called a Go (180 ml. or 6 oz.) and is served in a porcelain Tokkuri (flask) with O-chokos (tiny porcelain cups) to drink from.

These tiny cups may seem very inconvenient, but politeness is the key to enjoying Sake. It is a ritual in the consumption of Sake to never let your friend’s cup go dry. The tiny cups force the interaction between a group of people, as you must always refill each others cups. It is sign of disrespect to fill your cup when others are empty, or to allow your neighbors glass to go empty. In fact, some customs have the O-choko cup on a larger saucer that almost looks like a bowl. If you see this, the custom is to overfill your neighbor’s glass as a sign of “overflowing friendship.”

Sake Resources
In case you didn't get enough Japanese thrown at you, here are a number of Sake references and translations to help you become a Sakegeek!

Recommended Sake Books
The Sake Handbook, by John Gauntner
The Insiders Guide to Sake, by Philip Harper

Single Word Translations
Jun -- (june) -- "Pure"

Mai -- (my) -- "Rice"

Shu -- (shoo) – Sake that is pronounced sah-kay (the y is short).

Dai -- (die) -- "Great"

Gin -- (gheen) -- "Select Carefully" which refers to the amount of polish the rice receives.

-- (joe) -- "Brewed" or "fermented."

Sake Types
Junmai -- (june my) -- "Pure Rice" or a Sake made from only rice, water and koji.

Honjōzō -- (hon-joe-zoe) -- This is a Sake that is brewed with a limited amount of brewer’s alcohol added.

Ginjō -- (gheen joe) -- "Carefully Selected Brew" The "Carefully Selected" phrase refers to the rice which must be polished to at least 60% of its original size.

Daiginjō -- (die gheen joe) -- "Great Carefully Selected Brew." The addition of the word great means the rice must be polished to at least 50% of its original size.

Genshu -- (ghen shoo) -- The word Gen means origin or base. This refers to the base or the undiluted Sake. Most Sake naturally ferment to 20% to 22% alcohol and are then diluted down. So Genshu means undiluted or full strength Sake.

Koshu -- (koh shoo) -- "Old Sake," which refers to aged or matured Sake. It will be seen written in various forms such as o-goshu meaning "great old Sake" or ko-koshu meaning "old old Sake" or hizoshu meaning "treasured Sake."

Nama-Zake -- (na ma zah-key) -- "Live Sake," which is also written as namashu. It refers to unpasteurized Sake.

Nigori -- (knee go ree) -- "Cloudy," which refers to a Sake that has been coarsely filtered allowing some of the rice solids to pass into the bottled Sake.

Yamahai -- (yah ma hi) -- "To make a batch." This refers to producing a small batch of Sake in the very old time consuming traditional method.

Kimoto -- (kee moe toe) -- "Precious Mother" or a precious yeast starter that is created by slowly smashing the moto into a puree. This very time consuming old tradition produces very full flavored Sake.

Shizuku -- (shee zoo koo) -- "Droplets" or a free run Sake. The moromi is poured into Sake bags that are hung from the ceiling. The liquid Sake that drips out of the Sake bag is collected and bottled.

Brewing Terms
Kōbo – (Koh boo) -- "Yeast"

Kōji – (koh jee) -- This is steamed white rice that has been infected with a special mold that will convert the Sake rice to sugar.

Kura -- (ker a) -- "Sake Brewery"

Moromi – (mohr oh mee) -- The fermenting mixture of rice, koji and water.

Moto -- (moe toe) -- The mother or starter yeast to begin fermentation. It is a highly concentrated mixture of yeast with koji and rice.

Seimai -- (say my) -- "Polished Rice"

Seimai Buai -- (say my boo eye) -- "Polished Rice Ratio," which is the percentage of rice remaining after polishing.

Tōji – (toe jee) -- Master Brewer or the kura’s head brewer.

Choko -- (choh koh) -- Traditional small ceramic cup used for drinking Sake.

Masu – (mah sue) -- This is a square wooden box that is traditionally used at ceremonies to drink Sake.

Tokkuri -- (toe ker ee) -- The traditional ceramic pitcher used to serve Sake. It holds roughly 6 ounces or 180 milliliters.

Required Terminology
Kanpai -- (khan pie) -- "Cheers" in Japanese.