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The Basics of Junmai Sake and How to Enjoy It

Tom Inoue

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Have you just started trying out sake? Ever come across the term “Junmai”?
Looking for a complex sake experience?

Junmai might just be the sake you’re looking for. Read on to find out why.

Junmai means “pure rice”

Definition of junmai

In Japanese, junmai means “pure rice”. This means that this sake comprises only of rice, water, and koji. Koji is rice inoculated with fungi which breaks down starch to sugar. It is a staple ingredient in all types of sake.

Ingredients of junmai

<Other Sake Types>
Other non-junmai type sakes contain distilled alcohol. Honjozo sake, another premium type, contains less than 10% alcohol by rice weight. Non-premium, non-junmai type has as much as 50%, plus seasonings to taste.

There are some people who love junmai and dislike non-junmai sake. Their reasons are that junmai is the only traditional method, or non-junmai sake makes them feel bad because of artificially added alcohol. However, the custom of adding alcohol traces back to the 17th century*, and there’s no scientific reason that distilled alcohol have made people feel bad. Nonetheless, considering the global tax system on alcohol beverage, some countries apply different taxes to distilled alcohol added beverage and simple fermented beverage. This makes understanding and distribution of sake complex.

* Source: Domoshuzoki, a technical book about sake brewing in the early Edo period

Taste of Junmai Type

Because it has no distilled alcohol, junmai tastes richer than both honjozo and regular sake. The images below compare them on body, aroma, and sweetness. Junmai is less sweet and less aromatic but rich, in general.
Data referred from National Tax Agency of Japan

Taste of junmai

Note that this descriotion is roughly speaking and useful only as a starting guide. Tastes differ significantly within types. For example, there are some very sweet and aromatic junmai sakes in the market.

Four Categories of Junmai Type

There are four subcategories of junmai-type sake based mainly on rice polishing ratio. Breweries polish rice and milled away unfavolable bran when they make sake. Highly polished rice creates a cleaner, more elegant flavor, and a higher quality brew. These are junmai, tokubetsu (special) junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo.

Categories of junmai sakes

Below are the classifications and trophy-winning sakes in each category in International Wine Challenge 2016. These sakes are selected by blind tastings by 57 judges from 14 countries.

Junmai

If less than 40% of rice’s outer part is milled away, it becomes simple junmai sake.

Dewazakura Dewanosato, 2016
by Dewazakura Sake Brewery

Dewazakura Dewanosato, 2016

Image Credit: http://www.dewazakura.co.jp/

Tasting notes by IWC:
A youthful, dry style Sake with umami notes on the nose. Fresh green apple and spice, with a rich, soft mouth feel and good balance.

Price: 1,275JPY (720ml, in Japan)

Tokubetsu (special) junmai

Tokubetsu means that something is “special” or “unique” about the product. If rice is polished to 60% of original, it can be named as tokubetsu. But the definition of “special” is not limited to the polishing ratio. You can also find ones that use special rice variety, special production techniques like traditional handcrafted methods, and else. Tokubetsu is often ranked higher than junmai but lower than junmai ginjo.

Kiwamihijiri tokubetsu junmai Yamadanishiki, 2016
by Miyashita Sake Brewery

Kiwamihijiri tokubetsu junmai Yamadanishiki, 2016<

Image Credit:http://www.msb.co.jp

Tasting notes by IWC:
This Sake has a very elegant nose of banana, peach, melon, white flowers and stone fruit that carry through onto the palate complemented with savoury notes of steamed rice, soya and spice. Fresh acidity is balanced well by the creamy texture, followed by a long complex finish.

Price: 1,728 JPY(720ml, in Japan)

Benten Tokubetsu Junmaishu Tsuyahime, 2016
By Goto Shuzoten

Benten tokubetsu junmaishu Tsuyahime, 2016

Image Credit:http://www.benten-goto.com

Tasting notes by IWC:
Highly aromatic nose with a ginjo style – green apple, juicy, umami-rich palate that balances the aromatic nose. Good acidity for a modern style junmai pure clean finish.

Price: 1,512 JPY(720ml, in Japan)

Junmai Ginjo

Uses more than 40% polished rice grains. It also uses a special method of longer production period at lower temperatures (ginjo method). It tends to be light-bodied and refined with a distinct fruity aroma.

Taikan Omachi junmai ginjo, 2016
by Morishima Shuzo Co Ltd.

Taikan Omachi Junmai Ginjo, 2016

Image Credit:http://www.taikan.co.jp

Tasting notes by IWC:
Full luscious nose with hints of acidic fruit and peach. Full juicy body with nice hints of carbonation leads to elegant finish. Medium sweet style, melon, apple. Good intensity of aromas. Residual CO2 giving freshness. Refreshing.

Price: 1,544 JPY(720ml, in Japan)

Gokeiji Junmai Ginjo, 2016
by Aoki Shuzo brewery

Gokeiji junmai ginjo, 2016

Image Credit:http://aokishuzou.co.jp

Tasting notes by IWC:
Pineapple, citrus, hint of marshmallow. very intense, very modern in style. Wonderful attach with candied citrus and white floral notes following through to the palate. Rich concentrated, delicious with freshly steamed rice finish.

Price: 1,836 JPY(720ml, in Japan)

Junmai Daiginjo

Uses special production techniques and highly polished (more than 50%) rice grains. This is the pinnacle of a brewer’s art due to its high quality. It is more aromatic and elegant than ginjo.

junmai Daiginjo Joppari Hanaomoi, 2015
Rokka Shuzo brewery

junmai daiginjo Joppari Hanaomoi, 2015

Image Credit:http://www.joppari.com

Tasting notes by IWC:
So pleasant to taste. Fleshy, vivid, vibrant, with lychee and melon fruit. Rounded on the palate, crisp, off-dry and very appealing. Long.

Price: 3,456 JPY(720ml, in Japan)

Taiheizan Junmai Daiginjo Yushin, 2016
by Kodama Brewing Co Ltd.

Taiheizan junmai daiginjo Yushin, 2016

Image Credit:https://shop.kodamajozo.jp

Tasting notes by IWC:
Pretty white peach aromas. Very delicate sweetness. A balanced, comprehensive sake.

Price: 3,024 JPY(720ml, in Japan)

Amanoto Junmai Daiginjo 35, 2016
by Asamai Shuzo Co.,Ltd.

Amanoto junmai daiginjo 35, 2016

Image Credit:http://amanoto.co.jp

Tasting notes by IWC:
Dried lime, black pepper, custard, banana, melon, lively finish, nice bitterness to complement food.

Price: 3,600 JPY(720ml, in Japan)

You can find other thropy-awarded sakes here

Food Pairing

If you want to enjoy junmai with food, heavy food would match with simple junmai or tokubetsu junmai, since their flavor tend to be rich. On the other hand, when you have junmai ginjo or daiginjo, light food is recommended because of their light and aromatic flavor. But it’s up to you deciding what is the best combination.

Here are some examples.

Junmai and tokubetsu junmai – heavy food
Roast checkin
Beef stew
Sauteed foie gras

Amanoto junmai daiginjo 35, 2016

Junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo – light food
Summer vegetable pasta
Sea food salad
Vagetable / sea food risotto

Amanoto junmai daiginjo 35, 2016

Drink Hot or Chilled?

Many would ask if they should heat junmai or not, but unfortunately, there’s no answer to that. Some sakes are good to heat, while some others are not.

Generally speaking, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo are likely to have good aroma at lower temperature, so you would not need to heat it. When it comes to junmai and tokubetsu junmai, it’s different from brand to brand. The important thing is that breweries design the taste of sake considering the drinking temperature. A brewery may aim to make sake that is at its best at, say, 113℉ (45℃). So, a trustful way is to follow the brewery‘s instruction. Usually the recommended temperature is shown on the label. Don’t forget to check it!

Online store selling junmai sake

Find junmai sake in any of these online stores.

Sake Social (U.S.)
True Sake (U.S.)
Jizake Center (U.S.)
Sakaya (U.S.)
Total Wine (U.S.)
AC Spirits (U.S.)
Japan Center (U.K.)
Japan Food Hall (U.K.)
Ueno Gourmet (U.K., Germany, Switzerland)
Amazon U.K. (delivery available for other countries)
Sake Shop (Australia)
Sake Inn (Australia)
koji Sake (Hong Kong)
Whistler Wine and Spirits Pte (Singapore)
baccousonline (Thailand)

Junmai is pure rice sake with guaranteed quality. Try it the next time you visit an Izakaya or a Japanese restaurant. Or look for your favorite one in the online stores above and enjoy it in the comfort of your own home!

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