Nigorizake puts the fun back in sake drinking
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.
As an 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 Gifu.
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 nigori.
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.
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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.