Nigori – That Cloudy White Sake
Many people have inquired about the white, cloudy, usually opaque sake sometimes seen in shops and restaurants. Often readers liken it to a “icey pina colada.”What is it? How is it made, how does it differ from regular sake? How does it taste?
That is nigori-zake, which simply means “cloudy sake. “The “clouds” are nothing more than unfermented rice solids floating around inside.
Backing up a step or two, when sake is made, the rice ferments 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.” After that period, it is still a white, cloudy, soup of rice solids that could not ferment, yeast and other components. The clear, amber sake is then separated from these solids in one of several ways, all of which call for passing the sake through a mesh of some sort.
Sometimes this mesh is inside a pressure-driven machine, sometimes it is but a canvas bag into which the moromi has been poured. There are various ways, some better than others. But regardless of which method is used, the moromi passes through a mesh, with the pale amber ambrosia passing through and the white solids, or lees, remaining behind.
So, in most sake then, we have an almost clear liquid as the result of the pressing of the lees away from the sake. In nigori-zake, however, not all of the lees are pressed away; some of the unfermented solids are left behind deliberately, giving a rich, creamy, fabulously interesting flavor. Note this “leaving of the lees” is done in varying degrees, depending on the whims and fancies of the brewer.
There are several styles or forms that nigori-zake can take. Much nigori-zake is sweet and smooth and creamy in texture. One good example is Tsuki no Katsura from Kyoto, who makes quite a bit of nigori-zake; an inordinate percentage of their production in fact. This sake is apparently available in the US as well.
Then there is the “so chunky you’ll want to eat it with a fork” variety of nigori-zake, of which Biwa no Choju in Shiga is representative. Tart and rich, there are an abundance of recognizable unfermented rice grains floating that give it a special charm.
Next, there is the “still live and kicking” variety, in which the yeast is still very much active. Sake like this is not stable, and will change quickly, but it is indeed fun to try. Often, the bottles into which this has been put are equipped with special caps that allow the carbon dioxide to gently and slowly escape. This type of sake is often very tart and acidic, and while fun and lively, it may not appeal to those looking for a gourmet sipping experience. Shinkame from Saitama, a tiny brewery with unusual but wonderful sake all around, is the best example of this type of nigori-zake.
Naturally, nigori-zake does not offer the subtlety and refinement of good premium sake. Although it can indeed be tasty and fun, the remaining lees and their flavor easily overpower any other fragrances or gentle nuances of flavor. Also, nigori-zake should always be served a bit chilled.
Nigori-zake can be a bit harder to find, and not that much of it is produced. Its unique character seems to appeal to many, and it certainly worth a try once in a while.
To find out more about Nigori-Sake and other types and kinds of sake, check out The Sake Notebook and Slideshow Package. This combined package contains the basics of sake in a 14-page, easily digestible, very practical format that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, plus a 15-minute, gorgeously presented slideshow of the sake production process.