Yes – there are many out there who perceive sake to be a hard alcohol! What does hard mean? Hard to wake up in the morning? You bet! No, usually hard means “distilled.” Sake is not distilled; rather it is fermented like wine or beer – or as I cleverly coined “sake – built like beer – drinks like wine.” Well actually not that clever at all really, but you get the point. My job over the years has been to get sake out of the gin, vodka, and tequila basket and into the wine and beer basket of thinking. The problem is that many folks have consumed rot-gut sake in mass quantities and woke the next morning to that monkey wearing lederhosen banging the symbols over their head – “oh I’m never drinking sake again!” And yes the other battle has been against restaurateurs and bar-tenders who serve sake in shot glasses, which promotes what? Yup – shots of sake! “You shoot it.” Lastly the dear old “Sake Bomb” does not do a lot for the fermented image of sake – drop a sake into a beer! Hmm sure sounds like a distilled beverage for who in their right mind would drop a Chardonnay bomb in their beer?
Of all the fermented beverages in the world – sake has the highest naturally occurring alcohol content! Yes it is true and I did say naturally occurring! There are many beer fundies out there who will speak about certain beers constructed using things such as champagne yeasts that produce a beer with 25-28% alcohol content. That’s crazy and truly not naturally occurring! And yes some wines pump pretty high, but when I speak about sake I am speaking about the norm and not the exceptions. Sake will ferment “naturally” up to 18-19-20%. (And there is a certain very good friend of mine – a white guy who is a toji or head brewer in a kura in Kyoto Prefecture by the name of Philip Harper who is blowing way past these levels – and for the life of me I don’t know how! Philip has written several great books on sake and is very much worth being a fixture in your sake library.) But back to the point! Sake can ferment up to 19-20% no problem.
Should we think of sake in terms of 20% alcohol content? Nope! The actual industry average for sake is about 15-16%. But what just happened? How did we go from 19-20% to 15-16%? Do they stop the brewing process to lower the alcohol content? Do they stop the yeasts from eating the sugars and converting them to alcohol sooner? Nope. How do they do it? They dilute the sake. They cut it! They actually water that baby down. Why? Because the brewers feel that the brews drink better at that level. They feel that their flavors and textures are best expressed at roughly 15-16%. So do they dilute all sakes? No sir-ee!
There are three big “Un’s” in the sake world. The first is called Nama or unpasteurized sake. The second is called Nigori or what we in the west call unfiltered sake. And the third is called Genshu or undiluted sake. Genshu sake comes in all forms – Junmai Genshu – Junmai Ginjo Genshu – Daiginjo Genshu – Nama Genshu or JG’s favorite Muroka Nama Genshu. But the common underlying theme is that there has been no secondary water added to temper the alcohol percentage. So why don’t they add water to certain brews? The three FFF’s – feeling flavor finesse – the makers believe that certain sakes taste better in their naturally fermented state, without the additional water.
Are Genshu sakes more boozy? Do they taste more alcoholy? Some do and some don’t! Some sakes are so clean and pristine that you forget you are drinking a booze. Genshu in some manners is a way of expressing that indeed you are drinking an alcohol. A vast majority of competition sakes are Genshu! Why? More impact – more directness of the three F’s – more presence! I find that some Genshu sakes drink drier, because the extra alcohol dries up the flavors by the time it passes through the palate. That said I have tasted some exceedingly sweet Genshu sakes that drink almost fruitier because of the extra “booze.”
How can I find a genshu sake? Usually the word Genshu will be on the back label. But you can also look for the alcohol content on the label. If you see 17-18% and above – think genshu. That said not all Genshu’s are 17-18%. There are plenty 15-16% brews that are also undiluted, and have that level to achieve that brewers wishes. Okay so does adding water make for thinner or more watery sake? Again, in some cases you can perceive this, but the ambition of the brewers is for the drinker not to notice nor think about it. They produce a genhsu at 15% because it drinks the way they want it to drink! (I could have three sakes covered on a table – all with 15% alcohol content – two of which are diluted brews and one being genshu – and you would be hard pressed to find the genshu!)
Is a genshu sake more bang for the yen? Maybe or maybe not – if a brew is too high in alcohol content then it falls into a different tax bracket – that of a fortified wine – and as a result you will pay more for that distinction and pass the cost on to the customer.
What is the point of undiluted sake? Is there one general reason to produce this style? The answer is really quite simple – Genshu sakes are just another expression or stretch of road on your path to sake understanding. In a word they are just another offering! And luckily for you we have several of these “offerings” in our inventory.