The Nice "N" Word – Nigoris Past and Present
Nigori or unfiltered sake is that really unique brew that has the fog/clouds/fluff at the bottom of each bottle. What the heck is that stuff? As unappealing as it sounds it's really the unfermented rice particles that were not removed. You mean it's like cold Uncle Ben's rice juice? Not a chance. Remember the process of brewing sake is to convert a starch (rice) into a sugar (glucose). Then the brewers add yeasts that eat up all the sugar and cough out alcohol and carbon dioxide. So what rice doesn't get munched by the killer yeasts usually is sweet, and as such most nigoris tend to be on the fruitier and sweet side with SMV's (Sake Meter Value) ranging from –20 to +3.
Arguably if you have tasted a Nigori here in the US it was more than likely made here in the US. The Takara Sake Brewery in Berkeley, California and the Ozeki Brewery in Southern California make very affordable and "drinkable" nigoris that are fluffy and sweet. They are relatively inexpensive as compared to imported nigoris, and that is why restaurants and bars carry these products to make more money on increased margins. The result in my humble opinion is that we here in the West have embraced a liking for the sweeter nigoris. Heck when compared to some of the really bad "hot sake" flavors that we have tasted the cold and creamy nigoris scream drink me!
At one point in time all sake was nigori sake. In fact if you go way back sake resembled more of an oatmeal that one ate with chopsticks of sorts. I mean why bother to filter out all of the unfermented rice polishings? Well as tastes and flavors changed consumers soon preferred sakes that had the "lees" removed. How did they remove the lees? Think of a bottle of nigori. When standing straight up, eventually the lees settle on the bottom. Same thing happens in a fermentation tank. The heavier rice particles rest on the bottom, and brewers discovered that they could drain off the top of the tanks to achieve a particle free brew! In fact and ironically the top of a batch of fermented sake or the cream that rises to the top, was anything but! It was however the more desirable sake and as such the more expensive.
But like all things soon the government was looking for ways to tax the popular sake industry and they concluded that they would tax all sake that was filtered or had the lees removed. Thus, whenever a government official saw sake that was cloudy this immediately indicated that it was untaxed or "bootlegger" sake, that was probably made in somebody's basement. In word nigori sake was illegal. Imagine going to jail for the crime of Nigori-ing! I guess "moonshiners" can relate!
This all changed 41 years ago when a brewery in Fushimi outside of Kyoto said "Wait a second, we like nigori sake and we want to brew it again." Well maybe they didn't say it exactly like that, but they did invite the dreaded Tax Department down to their brewery to watch the process of making nigori sake using a large filter that didn't remove all of the lees. In a sense, it was still filtered sake they argued, and the Tax guys agreed! So this brewery (Tsukinokatsura – True Sake sells two of their amazing nigoris) re-engineered the modern nigori movement. Thanks to them you can enjoy sake with clouds!
True Sake has the largest selection of Nigoris outside of Japan. We do not carry locally made unfiltered sakes, but we do offer 13 imported Nigoris and 5 more are on the way. Many have heard me bemoan the fact that there isn't enough complexity and nuance for me in unfiltered sakes. This is changing. Today some of these beasts truly capture a complexity that is quite different than that of their filtered brothers. And they come in all forms of consistency from super thick and creamy to quite thin and extremely dry.
If you are a filtered snob like me, I say give Nigoris a second look. There are some really unique flavors jumping around, and they pair really well with certain dishes that filtered sakes cannot touch like Thai or spicy cuisine or cheesy foods with lots of cream and fat. And if you love your "foggy" sakes then branch out and try some of our unpasteurized Nigoris or some of the new dry examples. It is a white wonderland waiting for your exploration!