Honjozo is often confused for either a specific type of Japanese sake or a particular category of premium sake.
Understanding the basics of Honjozo will go a long way, because it is the type of sake that earns gold medals in Japanese sake fairs every year.
Without further ado, here are the basics of Honjozo and how to enjoy it!
1. Honjozo has two meanings
When you say Honjozo, it automatically conjures two meanings. Honjozo can refer to a general category of sake (Honjozo-types). Or it can refer to a more specific type of premium sake (Honjozo-shu). This ambiguity in naming comes from the categorization of sake.
1-1.‘Honjozo’ as ‘Honjozo-type’
Honjozo-type refers to a category of premium sake that has an added distilled alcohol less than 10% of rice by weight. If more than 10% alcohol is added, it is called Futsu-shu or regular sake. If no alcohol is added, the sake is considered Junmai-type, which is made only with rice and koji.
Distilled alcohol plays an important role in extracting aromatic components from the fermentation mash during sake production. This creates a drier and more fragrant brew.
Because of its wonderful aroma, Honjozo-types of sake are often the recipients of golden awards given by the National New Sake Appraising and Deliberating Fair.
Honjozo-types of sake
The four types of sake belonging to the Honjozo category are Ginjo, Diaginjo, Honjozo-shu itself, and Tokubetsu or Special Honjozo . They are categorized based on their rice-polishing ratios and the techniques used in making them.
Ginjo and Daiginjo
Sake made with rice that has been polished to less than 50-60% of its original size is called Ginjo or Daiginjo (highlighted in orange in the image). Since they are fermented for longer periods of time and at lower temperatures, they achieve a more fragrant (fruit-like or flower-like) and clearer taste.
Among the Honjozo-types, the most common and widely produced is Honjozo-shu.
1-2.‘Honjozo’ as ‘Honjozo sake’
Honjozo sake or honjozo-shu is one of the specific types of premium sake. It is made with rice, koji, and distilled alcohol not greater than 10% of rice by weight. Honjozo sake has no rice-polishing ratio requirements, unlike Ginjo and Daiginjo.
Since the rice bran is rich in proteins and fat, various flavors are often found in sake that uses less polished rice. So, among the Honjozo-types, you can say that Honjozo sake’ tends to have a richer, more complex taste. Whereas, Ginjo and Daiginjo would have drier and more fragrant qualities.
To simplify, Honjozo will be used in this article to refer to Honjozo sake. Another type of premium sake is a special-type of Honjozo known as Tokubetsu Honjozo.
Tokubetsu (special) Honjozo
‘Tokubetsu’ means ‘special’ in Japanese. Although this type of sake does not have a specific definition, it may be labeled special due to a higher rice-polishing ratio, a higher-grade rice used, etc. The taste also varies per product.
If a particular sake that gets your attention has this label, ask the store clerks why it is special. Or if you can read Japanese, check the label because the reason for it being labeled Tokubetsu is written there.
2. How to drink Honjozo?
Honjozo can be enjoyed at variety of temperatures from chilled to hot (40 -130°F or 5-55°C). And the best temperature differs from product to product. It is best to follow the recommendations on the sake’s label.
2-2. Food pairing
Honjozo’s simple, dry taste goes well with a variety of food. If a specific Honjozo has a rich taste, try pairing it with meat dishes. If it is more on the light side, you may wish to try with lighter fish-based dishes.
2012 International Wine Challenge judge Akiko Tomoda recommends pairing hot Honjozo with tuna sashimi, grilled chicken, and fried dishes. Honjozo’s flavor washes out the oil and refreshes your mouth so that you can keep enjoying the food.
3. How to find Honjozo?
To find Honjozo sake by yourself, find the characters below on label.
For Ginjo and Daiginjo type, see Ginjo.
4. Best Honjozo Sake
Photo Credit: http://shimizuya.info
Best known as an evening drink, this Honjozo has a rich body that flourishes in the mouth. It has an initial light but profound taste followed by a pleasant and fresh aftertaste.
KAIUN Iwai-zake (“celebration sake”)
Photo Credit: http://kaiunsake.com
Type: Tokubetsu Honjozo
Celebrating the development of Onuki local village where this sake brewery came from, everyone was on a ‘holiday cheer’ hence this sake got its name depicting a celebration.
Clear and transparent with a little hint of amber, this unpasteurized sake has a slightly sweet aroma and light taste coming from banana and vanilla. This dry sake has also a mild acidity that is best served chilled.
DEWAZAKURA Oka (Ouka) Ginjo Nama
Photo Credit: http://item.rakuten.co.jp
Originally brewed in Yamagata prefecture, this unpasteurized (nama) sake has the aroma of a fresh and juicy fruit. Its well-balanced acidity and mild sweetness give it a light taste.
Photo Credit: https://www.astyle.jp
This sake has a sophisticated cherry, pear and floral aroma, and a profound taste of heavy water and gentle rice. Known for its ‘super silky and soft’ smoothness, this sake is best paired with food with gentle flavors like tofu.
Now that you have the necessary knowledge to enjoy premium Honjozo-types of sake, you can try enjoying it alone, with food, and at different temperatures. Try it out and see what you like the best!