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What Is Nigori “Cloudy” Sake? Unclouding Nigori Sake

| Russell King

Nigori sake is a modern rediscovery of the traditional style of sake. Originally all sake was milky-looking, then brewers started making clear sake, and the legal definition of sake was written to require that all sake had to be “strained.” Straining removes the sake “kasu” (rice lees, unfermented rice) from the “sumizake” (clear sake), and the kasu can be used to make pickles, ice cream, etc. Nigori sake is a modern rediscovery of the original sake, and it is super interesting.

What is nigori sake?

Nigori sake (or “nigorizake") is cloudy sake.[1] The Japanese word “nigori” is commonly translated as “cloudy,” and this style of sake has these beautiful white clouds of sake lees in it.[2] Sake kasu are particles of undissolved rice that remain after fermentation. It can be sweet or dry, thin or thick, still or sparking. You might have heard it described as “unfiltered sake,” but it is better described as “cloudy sake.” It is a style that dates back to Kyoto in the mid-1960s and is very popular in the USA.

  1. What is “Zake?” In Japanese when two words come together like “nama” and “sake” or “nigori” and “sake,” the second word gets a hard sound. So “sake” becomes “zake.” Dewasakura? Yep, it becomes “Dewazakura.”
  2. Nigori is translated as “murky” but a good synonym is “cloudy” which better describes the appearance of nigori sake.

What is nigori sake made of? The ingredients and brewing process.

Nigori sake is brewed in the same way as “sumizake” (clear sake) and from the same ingredients. What makes it nigori is the method of “straining.” By using a coarse filter, with holes no larger than two millimeters to strain the sake, small particles of rice end up in the final sake. They bring with them texture, color and flavor. Sometimes the sake is pressed to produce crystal clear sake, and then a measured amount of the sake kasu is added back to the clear sake to introduce clouds.

Sake kasu
Sake lees or sake kasu, the leftover product from sake brewing, is often used for cooking and making other drinks.

A brief history of nigori sake

Originally, sake was white and creamy. After fermentation, the sake was consumed without any further processing. There are stories that claim to describe how the trend of separating the solid from the liquid portion became the norm. Crystal clear sake became the goal for many brewers, and in Japan the legal definition for sake was written to require that all sake be strained after fermentation.

This step to strain the sake put an end to milky sake and led to sumizake. In 1964, the brewery president of Masuda Tokubee Shoten in Kyoto started petitioning for a change in legislation to allow for a return to a more traditional cloudy style of sake. He negotiated a straining system involving a mesh with holes that allow for particles to become part of the sake. This was the birth of nigori style sake.

What does nigori sake taste like — is it sweet?

Nigori sake benefits from the unique flavors that come with sake kasu (the sake lees that make up the clouds in nigori). Often nigori sake are not the more refined ginjo-style sake because the rice lees bring the aromas and flavors of rice to the sake.

Is nigori sweet? Sometimes nigori is sweet like Hakutsuru “Sayuri,” but nigori can be dry, too, like Rihaku “Dreamy clouds.” Sometimes the rice lees contribute umami to the palate of the sake, but how it really differs is in the texture that the lees contribute to the body. On the palate, you may experience more rice contributions, and you may notice the creaminess of the rice lees. Residual sugar can come along with the sake lees, and sometimes thicker nigori sake are slightly sweeter.

Hakutsuru “Sayuri” and Rihaku “Dreamy Clouds”
Left: Hakutsuru “Sayuri.” Right: Rihaku “Dreamy Clouds.”

Serving temperature for nigori sake — hot or cold?

When serving nigori sake, tilt the bottle to gently mix the rice lees with the sake. Do not shake it because you are just trying to gently wake the clouds in the bottle before serving. The best serving temperature for nigori sake is cold. Some brewers produce nigori that they recommend over a short temperature range from “over ice” to “room temperature.” Most often, the best serving temperature for nigori is between “yuki-hie” (snow cold) 40 degrees Fahrenheit/5 degrees Celsius and “suzu-hie” (refreshingly cold) 60 degrees Fahrenheit/15 degrees Celsius. Fridge-cold, like with full bodied white wines, is perfect for nigori sake.

You can learn more about how to store sake and chill sake properly with the Tippsy Sake Guide.

4 Types of nigori sake and food pairing tips

There are specific types of nigori sake that describe the thickness of the rice lees in them and imply different expectations for their flavor profile. Food pairing means considering the aroma, sweetness, acidity, texture and umami of the nigori sake: pairing an “orizake” is different from pairing with an “usu nigori” as orizake has a stronger flavor profile. Something to try: In “Sake Pairing” (Asayiha Publishing, 2019), sake expert and co-author Marie Chiba suggests using a pinch of powdered “sansho” (Japanese pepper) to highlight the citrus notes in nigori sake, reducing the koji notes. Try this technique with your favorite nigori sake!

Types of nigori sake and food pairing tips

Orizake (おり酒) — strong flavors and umami

“Orizake” is a cloudy sake but not produced in the nigori method. After straining or pressing sake, it is left in a tank for any remaining particles to settle out. This process, “oribiki,” lasts for up to seven days. As the sake is bottled, and the level in the storage tank drops, some of the “ori” (sediment) that settled to the bottom of the tank can intentionally end up being bottled with the sake. This is orisake or orizake. The ori brings strong flavors and umami making the orizake a more robust flavored sake. If you find orizake in the USA, enjoy the higher umami of this type of sake, and pair it with strong flavored food such as oily or smoked fishes, smoked cheeses and pancetta.

Tippsy’s recommended orizake:
Ninki-ichi “Sparkling”
Fukucho “Seaside”

Sasa nigori (ささにごり) — light and smooth mouth feel

“Sasa nigori” has a light, smooth mouthfeel due to its fine rice lees and often refreshing flavors. Enjoy sasa nigori cold, and when pairing, select foods with simple flavors. Some sasa nigori are ginjo style sake with lighter fruity noses. A cold soft tofu pairs well because of the temperature, texture and simple flavor. Try pairing with fresh mozzarella or burrata, edamame or lycée.

Tippsy’s recommended sasa nigori:
Tamanohikari “Sasanigori”

Usu nigori (うすにごり) — mellow and very light mouthfeel

“Usu nigori” has a slightly cloudy appearance or thin clouds (“usu” means “thin”). The texture is thinner and lighter than sasa nigori. Their flavors tend to be mellow and the mouthfeel very light. A classic pairing is with seafood. Gozenshu “Bodaimoto” Nigori is an usu nigori: try pairing it with double chocolate chip cookies, or slow roasted tomatoes on goat cheese spread on crostini (light citric acidity, sweetness, lactic acid and umami.)

Tippsy’s recommended usu nigori:
Rihaku “Dreamy Clouds”
Gozenshu “Bodaimoto” Nigori

Kassei nigori (活性にごり) aka sparkling nigori

“Kassei nigori” has not been pasteurized and continues to ferment after bottling. The result is a lightly sparkling nigori sake (often with a thicker mouthfeel). Kassei nigori tends to blend sweetness with sour and have a gentle fizz. While these sake may not be labeled kassei nigori, searching for “namazake” (or “nama”) nigori will help you discover them. I haven’t seen consistency between the amount of lees that ends up in the sake: some are thicker, some are almost usu nigori. The fizz is nice and “self-mixes,” so you do not need to tilt the bottle to stir things up. Easily enjoy by itself or consider pairing kassei nigori with soft cream cheese, fresh fruits, vol-au-vent, chocolate truffles or madeleine cookies.

How nigori sake differs from other sake types

Nigori sake is brewed in the same way as other sake but differs in that it includes lees in the final product. The range of aromas, flavors, sweetness, dryness, acidity and umami is present in the nigori style as with other styles of sake. Nigori sake seems to be more popular in the USA market than in Japan. Perhaps because it is easy to remember that nigori sake is “the cloudy one” making it much easier to order, or perhaps because it generally pairs well with spicy foods.

Nigori vs. sake

The main difference is the inclusion of lees to give a cloudy liquid. The lees can contribute sweetness and umami to the palate of the sake. They can add rice and koji notes to the aroma of the sake. Sometimes nigori sake has lower alcohol than sake.

If you want to experiment for yourself, do a side-by-side tasting of Momokawa “Organic” Junmai Ginjo and Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori. This is the same sake but nigori has sake lees added making it cloudy. You will notice the changes to the look, the aroma and the palate of the sake because of the addition of the rice lees. With the nigori you will notice the addition of malt and toasted cereal notes on the palate. The palate changes with different flavors, sweetness, texture and finish. (Read on to find a guide to side-by-side tasting.)

Nigori vs. doburoku

“Doburoku” is unfiltered sake while nigori sake is cloudy sake (because it was strained through a coarse filter). At the end of brewing, doburoku is not filtered or strained. Doburoku is closer to the original sake although now it is often brewed using pitched yeast (not ambient), and sake specific koji (not miso koji).

Yamaguchi Brewing Company in Fukuoka makes a doburoku which is fruity, textured, creamy and fun to drink with notes of vanilla, porridge, sweet rice and a balanced dryness. Doburoku gives a sense of sake’s roots. There is a lot to the texture of doburoku, and they will often surprise you, presenting more complexity in the nose and palate than you were expecting.

Nigori vs. junmai

Junmai means “pure rice” and nigori means “cloudy.” Junmai tells you that the only ingredients used to brew the sake were water, steamed rice, koji and yeast. Nigori tells you that the sake is cloudy. There are many junmai nigori — pure rice, cloudy sake. Including the lees in a junmai can emphasize the rice and koji components of the junmai sake — it can be a real celebration of the rice used to brew the sake when you taste a junmai nigori. Tozai “Snow Maiden” and Hakutsuru “Sayuri” demonstrate this balance between aromatic, flavorful, junmai sake and the textural complexity of a nigori. On the other hand, Taiheizan “Nigori” from Kodama Brewing Company in Akita is a honjozo nigori and has the light crispness of a honjozo with the textural components of a nigori.

Nigori vs. ginjo

The goal of “ginjo zukuri” (making ginjo sake) is to produce an elegant aromatic sake through a scrutinized brewing process: highly polished rice, ginjo specific yeast and a long slow fermentation make brewing ginjo-shu very labor intensive. When you add sake lees you bring the aromas of fermentation (rice and koji) to the sake. For ginjo and daiginjo (highly scrutinized brewing), you might detract from the qualities you were trying to achieve by including the lees.

On the other hand, when the sake is designed with nigori in mind you can end up with a beautifully complex and delicate ginjo sake. Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori shows off the tropical fruits of a ginjo while balancing them with the creamy nigori mouthfeel and palate. Dassai “45” Nigori is an awesome example of the balance between a delicate junmai daiginjo and a grain-forward nigori sake.

Side-by-side

Momokawa “Organic” Junmai Ginjo and Ginjo Nigori

Both Momokawa “Organic” Junmai Ginjo and Ginjo Nigori are brewed with organic Calrose rice, grown in California. After fermentation is complete, they are both pressed using a “yabuta” resulting in a clear sake. The Ginjo Nigori has sake kasu (the rice lees) added back to the sake after pressing.

Momokawa “Organic” Junmai Ginjo and Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori
Left: Momokawa “Organic” Junmai Ginjo. Right: Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori.

When you compare them side-by-side, you can get a great sense for how the addition of sake kasu enhances and changes the sake. To compare the two, find two similar white wine glasses (tulip shaped with a nice sized bowl that narrows at the opening to help direct the aromas to your nose.) Pour about 1.5 to 2 ounces of Momokawa “Organic” Junmai Ginjo in one and the same amount of Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori (tilt the bottle a couple of times to mix the lees with the sake) into the other glass. Also, grab a tall glass of water and something to “spit” into (or not).

As with any tasting exercise it is important to start hydrated and to drink water throughout. For this side-by-side tasting start with the Momokawa “Organic” Junmai Ginjo. Notice the crystal clear, colorless nature of the sake. Sample the aroma of the sake and make a note of what you detect. Swirl the sake in the glass and smell again. Really enjoy the aroma of this sake thinking about the fruit, flower, grain or herbal notes you detect. Take a small sip, swirl it around your mouth and spit it out.

Now take a sip and let the sake roll over your tongue. Think about your first impressions (the front of the palate), how it changes (the middle), and then spit (or swallow) and then the finish. Revisiting the aroma might help expose new layers now that you have tasted the sake. It is a good idea to write down what you sense — add your thoughts on the sensations of flavor, texture and finish to the notes you made for aroma.

Cleanse your palate with water, and when you are ready, start again with the Momokawa "Organic" Ginjo Nigori. Swirl the sake in the glass and notice the way it looks: the texture, color and transparency. Sample the aromas and note what you sense. As you did before, take a small sip, rinse it around your mouth and spit it out: then take a second sip to sample.

Again, think about your first impressions, how it develops, and then spit (or swallow) and notice the finish. Before going back and forth, remember to use water to cleanse your palate, especially considering the mouth coating quality of the nigorizake (nigori sake). There should be clear differences beyond the obvious visual and textural changes.

Think about the rice and grain notes on the nose and palate for each. How does it change with the addition of the sake lees? How is the front of the palate different with each sake? What about the development of flavors? Do you notice a change in sweetness or dryness? How do they finish? It really is interesting to be able to compare the two sake and enjoy them for their differences.

Nigori sake cocktail recipes

While many sake are designed to be enjoyed as it is, some sake make amazing cocktails! Here are a few unique and must-try nigori sake cocktail ideas!

Ginger pear nigori sake cocktail recipe with Tozai “Snow Maiden”

Tozai sake pear cocktail
The cocktail recipe created by @thesocialsipper
  • Servings: 1
  • 1/4 pear, cubed
  • 1.5 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons Tozai “Snow Maiden”
  • 1 tablespoon ginger liqueur
  • Splash sparkling water
  1. Add pear and lemon juice to a cocktail shaker and muddle. Add sake, ginger liqueur and ice and shake.
  2. Strain into a coupe glass and top with a splash of sparkling water.
  3. Garnish with a pear slice.

Pancake nigori cocktail with Hakutsuru “Sayuri”

Pancake nigori cocktail
The cocktail recipe provided by Hakutsuru Brewing Company.
  • Servings: 1
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 5 tablespoons Hakutsuru “Sayuri”
  1. Mix heavy cream, milk and maple syrup well.
  2. Put in a microwave-safe cup and warm up (Be careful not to boil!)
  3. Add Hakutsuru “Sayuri” and mix.

Creamy frozen strawberry sake with Homare “Strawberry”

Homare “Strawberry” milk sorbet
The cocktail recipe provided by Homare Brewing Company.
  • Servings: 1
  • 6 tablespoons Homare “Strawberry”
  • Milk of your choice
  1. Pour sake into an ice cube mold and freeze for 2 to 3 hours. Pull out the frozen sake into a cup and pour milk as much as you like. Eat with a spoon like a sorbet!

Our recommendations of the best nigori sake for beginners

Generally, when you see sake on a drink menu at a restaurant, you will find at least one cloudy style sake (nigori sake). Getting to know nigori sake can help you feel supported when you face a complicated sake list. The following recommendations will give you a good selection to learn from and enjoy, either on their own, or with the foods you normally eat. Nigori sake tend to be a little easier to pair with spicy, creamy, grilled foods and desserts.

Our recommendations of the best nigori sake

Tozai “Snow Maiden”

Tozai “Snow Maiden”

Tozai “Snow Maiden” is an easy nigori to enjoy with a variety of foods or on its own. It is a refreshing sake that balances creamy with crisp. In terms of texture, it is medium — not thick — creamy on the palate, it lightly coats your mouth with a very pleasant finish.

It has a fruity nose with notes of melon, banana, cotton candy and steamed rice. On the palate are light notes of green melon (honeydew) and rice. The front, middle and finish of the palate show the complexity of this beautiful nigori. There is a great balance between a gentle sweetness on the front of the palate and a dryness on the finish.

Pairs well with umami laden and spicy foods. Will seem dryer with sweet foods and sweeter with salty or spicy foods.

Hakutsuru “Sayuri”

Hakutsuru “Sayuri”

Hakutsuru “Sayuri” has a lively fruity noise with a slightly lower alcohol content than many other sake. The nose has notes of strawberry, pineapple, banana, bubblegum and yogurt. On the palate the texture is silky smooth. The palate hints at the fruit notes found on the nose, there is a delicate umami and sweetness from the front to the finish. The finish is short for a nigori, and there’s an almost milk-candy component to taste.

Salty and spicy foods help highlight the sweetness of the nigori. Works well with a charcuterie board and young, low acidity cheese.

Shichi Hon Yari “Nigori”

Shichi Hon Yari “Nigori”

Shichi Hon Yari “Nigori,” brewed with two differnt kinds of rice, Tamazakae and Ginfubuki, is a beautiful junmai ginjo style nigori. The sake is brewed with a highly aromatic yeast that gives a tropical fruit nose with notes of coconut, pineapple and papaya. On the palate the light sweetness of the sake kasu (rice lees) is balanced nicely by a refreshing acidity, and a gentle umami adds complexity to the body.

I find this sake very easy to enjoy with summer BBQ such as burgers and hotdogs. It pairs well with young cheeses and bittersweet chocolate desserts. If you’re a fan of foods from the grill, this is a great starter nigori for you.

Dassai “45” Nigori

Dassai “45” Nigori

Dassai is a well-known brand and sake you are likely to see in bars and restaurants. (learn more with Why is the Brand “Dassai” So Famous?) Known for their range of junmai daiginjo sake with floral, fruity noses it is unusual to find a junmai daiginjo nigori. If you are usually a junmai daiginjo drinker then Dassai “45” Nigori is a great nigori sake for you to try.

The nose on this sake is alive with blossom, apple and melon. Unlike other nigori, the palate is light and not particularly sweet. There are notes of ripe stone fruit like black cherry, ripe apple and pear with a light creaminess.

This is a sophisticated nigori that can easily be enjoyed on its own or with light, delicate, fruit crudites.

Taiheizan “Nigori”

Taiheizan “Nigori”

“Honjozo” can often deemphasize the rice contributions in the final sake. Taiheizan “Nigori” is a beautiful combination of two styles: a crisp honjozo and a more traditional doburoku. The result is texturally light and crisp with a subtle creaminess. For me, this is a savory nigori and unusual in that regard.

On the nose are notes of banana, grass and a hint of pineapple. The palate is crisp, dry, and has a nice acidity to the finish that hints at citrus. If you normally select an unoaked white wine then try this nigori.

Consider a charcuterie or cheese plate as an accompaniment to this unusual nigori sake.

Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori

Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori

Brewed using organic Calrose rice, grown in California, Momokawa “Organic” Ginjo Nigori always reminds me of starfruit. The nose is rich with notes of malt, toasted cereal, pineapple and banana. The palate opens with a sweet front, hints of banana, pineapple and then finishes with a subtle tartness. I like the complexity of the palate of this nigorizake.

Texturally this has a nice mouth coating quality that makes it great to enjoy along with spicy foods like hot and sour soup. This is a great beginners nigori that you can enjoy alongside a multicourse meal as it is not shy to show the different sides of its personality as your food changes.

Homare “Strawberry”

Homare “Strawberry”

It is hard to write about this nigori sake because everything you need to know about it is in the name. There are many flavored sake and many flavored nigori sake but Homare “Strawberry” is a personal favorite. If you are new to flavored nigori, this is a great beginner’s sake. It has a beautiful color, and as soon as you pour it, you will start to enjoy the aroma.

On the nose look for notes of guava, cooked strawberry and ripe strawberry. The palate has an almost dried fruit like sweetness: think dried strawberry or raisin. Obviously, there is a beautiful natural strawberry flavor with a rich texture.

You can drink this on its own, pair it with dessert or with soft low-acidity young cheese. I really enjoy the combination of the nigori’s ability to handle spicy foods with the fruity palate by sipping this along with Laughing Cow Creamy Spicy Pepper Jack cheese on Saltines.

Beyond the clouds

Nigori sake is a broad category of sake that includes diverse texture, flavor and aromatic profiles. They are a new expression of a traditional form of sake that perfectly marries the notes of rice and koji with the beautiful aspects of clear sake. Think of them as cloudy sake, not as unfiltered, and spend time enjoying the clouds in your glass. Those clouds bring texture and flavor that make nigori sake so unique. Serve them cold, try them on their own, enjoy them with spicy foods and consider them a dessert accompaniment. We have given you great recommendations to introduce you to the world of nigori sake. As with other sake, you do not have to finish the bottle in one sitting: recap the bottle, store it in the fridge and enjoy it at your leisure. Kampai!

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