Not all sake are equal, far from it, actually. Just like wine and its multiple classification criteria, sake can be divided into various grades and categories.
The world of sake is divided into two main categories. "Table Sake" & "Premium Sake." In Japanese, "table sake" is referred to as "futsu-shu", which literally means normal sake. On the other hand, premium sake is known as "tokutei meisho-shu", or special designation sakes.
The two criteria used to classify sake are the rice polishing ratio (how much of the rice grain is left after polishing) and if pure alcohol has been added or not.
Table sake is known as "futsu-shu." It represents about 70% of the sake market in Japan. It is a non-premium sake category that follows little requirements. It merely needs to be brewed from rice and then pressed.
Brewers tend to add a relatively high amount of distilled alcohol, acid and sugar into their "futsu-shu." They do so to control the taste but, most importantly, to improve their economic return.
Table Sake or "Futsu-Shu"
The term "futsu-shu" or "table sake" has a negative connotation. Most of them are hangover inducing and of lower quality. However, like with most things in sake, there are exceptions. You can find some delicious "futsu-shu" that will not turn your head upside down, so it is important to never judge a sake from its label!
The realm of premium sake is divided into two families. The first family is the "Junmai" family, or "pure rice." This family of premium sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast and koji. The second family of premium sake is referred to as "non-junmai." They are brewed with the same ingredients as junmai expect that a small amount of pure distilled alcohol is added during production.
These two families can then be sub-divided into grades based on their rice polishing ratio, or "seimaibuai" discussed a few pages earlier.
Many consumers and industry professionals regard "junmai" as the purest and only "real" sake. To their eyes, adding alcohol is a barbaric practice that ought not to be. However, to our eyes, all that matters is finding the sake that's right for you and that you will love drinking.
Junmai sakes are "pure rice" sakes brewed exclusively with rice, water, koji and yeast. There are no minimum polishing ratio requirements. Nothing is else is added. They are regarded as the purest and more traditional kind of sake.
Junmai sakes tend to be fuller, richer and less aromatic. They are great paired with meat or enjoyed warmed on a cold day.
Unlike junmais, honjozo sakes are brewed with rice, water, koji, yeast AND a small amount of pure distilled alcohol. Nothing else can be added, no acid, no sugar etc. The rice used for brewing must have a polishing ratio of 70%. 70% of the rice grain is left, and 30% of it has been polished away.
Adding the alcohol is not to increase yield but to enlighten flavours and bring out the aroma. As a result, honjozos are very drinkable and more affordable. Beware, however, very drinkable + added alcohol = headaches.
Junmai Ginjo Sake
A "pure rice" sake brewed only with rice, water, koji and yeast. To be classified as a junmai ginjo, the rice polishing ratio must be at least 60%, i.e. 40% of the grain must be milled away.
However, it takes a lot more than just highly polished rice to brew a fine junmai ginjo sake. Every step of the brewing process has to be carefully executed, and the temperatures controlled perfectly.
Junmai ginjos are more refined and aromatic than regular junmais.
A sake with added alcohol brewed with rice polished down to at least 60%, similar to junmai ginjos.
While it would be tempting to call it a honjozo ginjo, they are simply referred to as ginjo. For simplicity, if the prefix junmai isn't mentioned, it is an honjozo with added alcohol.
Ginjos are soft and aromatic, more than honjozos and most junmai ginjos.
Junmai Daiginjo Sake
A "pure rice" sake brewed with rice polished down to at least 50%. They are more refined and delicate than junmais and junmai ginjos; they are often the most premium and sought after sake in the market. Junmai Daiginjos are regarded as the "all-stars" of the sake world.
A lot more than mere polishing is required from the brewery to perfect and consistently brew great junmai daiginjo sakes.
Junmai daiginjos are the most aromatic of all junmai sakes.
An alcohol added sake brewed with rice polished down to at least 50%. Daiginjos are exceptionally aromatic and floral. Just like junmai daiginjos, they are some of the most celebrated sake in the market.
Daiginjos are often the big winners at sake competitions around the world.
We hope you found this short article about the different types of sake helpful and that it will help you understand the basics and give you more confidence to explore the wonderful world of Japanese sake.
The Sorakami Team