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nihonshu in japan

Nihonshu Crash Course: What You Need to Know About Japanese Nihonshu

By Margherita Dec 6, 2021

With Christmas and New Year getting closer and closer, the festive drinking occasions will be just around the corner.

This is the best opportunity to dig into the Japanese culture of alcohol to know more about Japanese sake and why not – take some inspiration on presents for some drinking-loving friends and family.

Basics: What is Nihonshu

Did you know that the word ‘sake’ commonly used in western countries, in Japanese actually refers to the entire category of alcoholic beverages? 

The liquor produced by fermenting rice with koji (a fungus with fermenting action) and water is called nihonshu and has an alcohol content of between 10 and 20%.

The fermentation process is more complex than that of wine, for example, because the starch in the rice must first be converted into sugars through the action of the koji fungus, which with its enzymes initiates the process saccharification of the starch. 

As wine production consists of a single-stage fermentation process, the characteristics and quality of the grapes have an important influence on the final product. 

For nihonshu, on the other hand, although the rice used is certainly a non-negligible factor, the quality of the final product with its differences in taste and aroma is largely determined by the technical skills of the producer or the technology used.

Stepping Up: Different Types of Nihonshu

Nihonshu is classified into different types, depending on the ratio of polished and unpolished rice used. A higher rate of polished rice is used in higher quality nihonshu.

Distilled alcohol is also introduced to enhance a particular aroma and flavor, depending on the producer and the techniques used. 

The main types of nihonshu are:
Honjozo-shu (本醸造酒), around 70% of unpolished rice
Junmai-shu (純米酒)
Ginjo-shu (吟醸酒) and Junmai Ginjo-shu (純米吟醸酒)
Daiginjo-shu (大吟醸酒) and Junmai Daiginjo-shu (純米大吟醸酒), premium type of nihonshu, that uses 50% or less unpolished rice.

nihonshu in japan

Credit: Unsplash

Where to Start: Recommended Bottles 

Nihonshu, just like wine and craft beers, can get complicated since there are so many types and different producers add their own different tastes to the products.

But if you are looking for some good quality nihonshu that won’t break the bank (and won’t make you regret drinking it the day after!), we recommend choosing Honjozo, Gingo, or Junmai.

Dassai 45

Dassai, from Yamaguchi prefecture, is one of the most known nihonshu brands in Japan. Dassai 45 is a Junmai Ginjo brewed using rice polished down to 45%; soft and fruity is best paired with light flavors, and it is the perfect gentle introduction to some delicate high-quality nihonshu.

Kenbishi “Kuromatsu”

This honjozo from Hyogo Prefecture has a little more color than usual because the brewers don’t filter it as much as other nihonshu. It has a rich and dry flavor, perfect to match with rich meals.

Suigei Tokubetsu “Drunken Whale”

This Tokubetsu Junmai is said to be brewed for whales drifting off the coast of Kochi prefecture in Shikoku Island. With a light and dry taste, it is brewed to pair easily with any dishes on a dinner table. Its fruity richer flavors come out, especially when drunk warm.

nihonshu in japan

Credit: Unsplash

Dig Deep: Nihonshu Tasting and Online Resources

If you are curious about nihonshu, we highly recommend visiting bars and izakaya specialized in nihonshu such as Nihonshu Stand Moto in Shinjuku, Sakeba in Shibuya, Meishu Center in Yushima, Sakeoh Tasting Lab in Katsushika, which organize tasting courses and events.

In addition, visit to read many more articles on specific types of sake, brewers, and their brewery techniques.

With this crash course to nihonshu, you are ready to go grab your first bottle and share your knowledge with your friends – we promise you are going to look like a pro.

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