Namazake (生酒) means, literally, raw sake. But don't let the name fool you: namazake is, in the eyes of many, actually the most refined form of sake.

Rawest, Rawer, Raw

Contrary to what the name seems to imply, there are several even more "raw" forms on the market. Rawest of all is doburoku (濁酒), the lumpy, unfiltered, foul-smelling homebrew that modern sake descends from, but which is rarely offered for commercial sale. A step more 'cooked' is nigorizake (にごり酒, rarely 醪), which filters out the lumps but leaves the rice lees, leaving behind a sweet, milky white fluid; not a bad way to get acquainted with sake, but hardly the pinnacle of the craft.

And then there's namazake, which filters out all visible remains of the rice and leaves behind a crystal clear liquid, identical to 'standard' sake in all ways but one -- it is unpasteurized. This has the obvious disadvantage of making it go bad much faster, within months compared to the year (plus) for pasteurized sake, and it must be kept refrigerated at a constant temperature (5 to 10°C) to keep for even that long. Short shelf life and higher transportation costs also translate to higher cost, so expect to pay a premium of at least ¥500 per bottle for the privilege.

"So why bother?", you ask. Simple: pasteurization involves heating the liquid to a temperature of at least 65°C and then cooling it down, a process which irrevocably alters the taste of the sake. Namazake has been spared this bruising treatment, and consequently it (can) taste smoother and fresher. Namazake, while usually dry if measured by nihonshudo (relative density), often taste slightly sweet to the palate. While merely being namazake is obviously no guarantee of quality, many of the finest sakes in the world -- such as Kubota Suiju and Himuro, to pick a few personal favorites -- are namazake.

There is also a "half-nama" type of sake called nama-chozô (生貯蔵), which has been stored raw after brewing but quickly heated before shipping, supposedly getting the best of both worlds. Most sake fans beg to disagree, and nama-chozo isn't very common.

Availability and Consumption

Alas, due to the need for refrigerated transport (and minimal demand), namazake is practically unobtainable outside Japan, and even in Japan tracking down a supplier of a namazake from a different prefecture can be difficult. (I still haven't found a retailer of Himuro in Tokyo, although a few izakaya do sell it by the glass at exorbitant prices.)

But in case you manage to find some, which usually involves a personal courier from Tokyo since it is actually illegal to send alcohol by mail in Japan, it should go without saying that heating namazake would entirely defeat the point of the exercise. Drink it chilled, perhaps a bit warmer than storage temperature, or just sip slowly and let it warm up in the process.

Please remember that namazake keeps even worse than usual sake, so an opened bottle should ideally be finished off during the evening. If your bottle of sake turns cloudy and/or starts to smell distinctly yeasty, it has been contaminated by hiochi (火落ち) bacteria and should be thrown away.


A long line of empty bottles atop my kitchen shelf

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