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What is Premium Japanese Sake

Tom Inoue

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Ever heard of premium sake?

Premium sake is none other than the crème of the crop. But with at least 8 types available, learning it can be both daunting and exhausting.

This article simplifies it for you. Scroll down and get a big picture of the world of premium sake.

1. What is Premium Sake?

Premium sake is defined by the Japanese Government as meeting strict brewing requirements and as being made without additives. In general, its only ingredients are:

  • Rice
  • Koji (>15% of rice)
  • Optional: Distilled Alcohol (< 10% of rice)

Regular sake, on the other hand, is made with >10% distilled alcohol and/or additives. Some are even made with 50% distilled alcohol or more, which results in a low quality drink.

2. Types of Premium Sake

There are 8 different types of premium sake. To understand them better, let’s look at them from two standpoints:

  • Was distilled alcohol added or not?
  • What is the rice-polishing ratio?

Was distilled alcohol added?

If yes, then the sake falls under Honjozo-types (i.e. Honjozo, Tokubetsu Honjozo, Ginjo, Daiginjo).

If no, then it falls under Junmai-types (i.e. Junmai, Tokubetsu Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo). The absence of the word Junmai means that alcohol has been added.

A small amount of distilled alcohol (< 10% of rice by weight) is intentionally added for two reasons:

  1. Alcohol draws out the fragrance from the fermenting brew, since the aromatic components dissolve into it.
  2. Alcohol creates a drier sake with a sharper taste.

Without alcohol, the result is a full-bodied sake with a richer, nuttier taste, as observed from Junmai-types.

What is the rice-polishing ratio?

In general, the more polished the rice, the more premium the sake.

Let’s first try to understand the importance of rice-polishing.

rice

Left: sake rice, Right: table rice

Photo Credit: http://www.pref.nara.jp

The rice used in sake making contains a white core, unlike table rice. This white core contributes to the unique taste profile of sake and is where the beneficial microbes latch onto to stimulate fermentation.

The outer layer of rice (rice bran) is rich in protein and fat, and can create various flavors in sake – sometimes unfavorable ones. Polishing it off results in a lighter, cleaner, and purer-tasting sake.

The image below describes the different types of premium sake based on rice-polishing ratio. Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo sake are made with 60% or less of the original rice grain. The most premium grade Daiginjo (Daiginjo means ‘super’ Ginjo) and Junmai Daiginjo are made with less than half.

polishing

Ginjo and Daiginjo are collectively considered Ginjo-type (colored rows). They are distinguished by their transparent appearance and aromatic fruit-like flavors, such as, melon, banana, or apple.

aroma

Ginjo-types are made through long, labor-intensive processes. Also, for these types, more grains are used since much of the original grain is polished away. These both act to push their prices to a premium.

Other premium types

Aside from those mentioned above, you might encounter ‘Tokubetsu Junmai’ or ‘Tokubetsu Honjozo’ sake. ‘Tokubetsu’ means ‘special’ in Japanese.

Although there are no strict or clear definitions of what falls under Tokubetsu, breweries use it when the sake has/uses:

  • Higher polishing ratio (more than 60%)
  • Special brewing method
  • High-grade or special rice

Whatever the reason, manufacturers often indicate so on the label.

3. How to Find Premium Sake

You can find all the types of premium sake from sake sellers. Store clerks should easily guide you in finding them. Daiginjo’s fruit-like aroma is worth trying for beginners.

You won’t make a mistake in trying premium sake. But keep in mind that the brand of sake plays an important factor in how it tastes. So, instead of looking for a specific premium type, ask sommelier or the store clerk what brand they would recommend for you—whether you want something mild, dry, sweet, acidic, light, rich, or aromatic.

In order to understand more of the different varieties of sake, we can only suggest one thing: try more sake!

The surprising variety of sake can only be understood by experiencing it for yourself!

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