By JOHN GAUNTNER
It is all too easy to get all too serious about sake all too often. Ginjo this and ginjo that, highly polished rice, double-secret yeast, fancy fragrance, full palate, clean
finish, yada yada yada. Sake in the end should be fun, and nothing reminds us of this better than nigorizake.
We've all seen it, the white, opaque sake, found occasionally on shelves around the
country. Just what is it, what does it taste like, and how does it differ from regular sake?
Nigorizake is -- just as the name implies -- cloudy sake. The "cloudiness" is nothing more
than part of the fermenting mash, unfermented rice solids left suspended in the sake.
When most normal sake is made, fermentation takes place in a large tank for a period of anywhere between 18
and 36 days. The bubbly, chunky, fermenting mash at that time is referred to as the moromi. When the time is right, the clear or faintly amber sake is then separated from these solids in the mash in one
of several ways, all of which call for passing the sake through a mesh of some sort. This mesh coarsely filters the sake, keeping the lees (now called kasu) safely behind.
Nigorizake is made by
using a very coarse mesh and allowing a good dollop of the rice solids to remain in the final brew. The result is a rich, creamy, thick form of sake that can have a myriad of flavors.
interesting side note, the sake must pass through the aforementioned mesh to be legally classified as seishu (legalese for sake as compared to other alcoholic beverages). Although a very coarse mesh can
be used, sometimes the white lees are actually added back into the sake immediately after pressing to keep things legal.
An exception to the law is the nigorizake brewed at about 10 Shinto shrines
across the country, where a form of the murky brew is made for use in religious ceremonies such as Imperial coronations. The most famous of these brewing shrines is Shirakawa-go Jinja in Hida Takayama in
Originally, all sake was one form of nigorizake. It wasn't until the late Heian Era (794-1192) that brewers began to filter the moromi to create clear sake. Most home-brewed sake (called
doburoku, and though it is illegal to brew at home, there are books on how to do it) is also a form of nigorizake.
Nigorizake is indeed fun sake. The heavier, bigger character overshadows any
light, delicate flavors or fragrances. Still, the soupy, lively and explosive nigorizake has a special appeal all its own.
There are many kinds of nigorizake as well. Some are bottled while still
actively fermenting, creating a carbonated beverage that is usually fairly tart and acidic. Sake still active and bubbling when bottled is called kasseishu. Shinkame of Saitama makes such a nigorizake.
Often the top of the bottle is punctured to allow gas to escape.
Some nigorizake is much sweeter, often bottled as genshu (undiluted sake) with a slightly higher alcohol content. Nigori like this
can resemble a pina colada, say some. Occasionally the lees are chunky, with many near-whole grains of rice. You'll be tempted to use a fork. Try Biwa no Choju from Shiga for such wonderfully unrefined
Yet other nigorizake is smooth and creamy, going down pleasantly and gently. A great example of this comes from the largest brewer of nigorizake in the country, Tsuki no Katsura of Kyoto.
There is also something known as usu-nigori, or thin nigori. This is nigorizake that has been pressed so that only a fine mist of lees remains within the bottle. Naturally this allows more of the
original nature of the sake to come through, with only a bit of added acidity and big flavor coming through as a result of the remaining lees.
One warning: Nigorizake will always be labeled as
such. Be careful not to confuse sake that is cloudy from having gone bad with good nigorizake. Specifically, namazake (unpasteurized sake) that has not been kept cold can become cloudy inside, a
condition known as hi-ochi. Although it cannot hurt you, sake suffering this fate is not very tasty, being cloyingly sweet, tart and overrun by yeast. But the appearance of the cloudiness from hi-ochi is
different from that of normal nigorizake, especially usu-nigori which it would most resemble. The hi-ochi cloudiness looks more slimy and suspended, dancing through the sake like the floating stuff in a
lava lamp (for those of us old enough to remember them). Normal nigori clouds are grainy and heavier, sinking sooner to the bottom.
Although it is available all year, now is perhaps the easiest
time to find nigorizake. Although it will not have the delicate flavors, fragrances and recesses that a ginjo-this and a ginjo-that sake might have, it certainly is fun to drink once in a while.
* * *
Rihaku (Shimane Prefecture)
Seimai-buai: 60 percent
This manifestation of sterling Rihaku is fresh and brash,
but as only a small part of the lees remain, dancing like light snow in a cold February blizzard along the bottom, much of the original flavor of the sake remains intact. Light with a good acidity, the
nuttiness in the recesses so typical of Shimane sake still comes through. The fragrance is fairly subdued, but sweeter than average when you can perceive it. Wonderful served cold. Rihaku is just one of
countless nigorizake available at this time of the season. It should be available at one or more larger department stores in major cities.
The Japan Times: Apr. 27, 2000
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