Types of Sake

Can’t tell a junmai apart from a honjozo? Don’t worry! We got you covered. Being able to tell the difference between various types of sake and knowing how they differ from one another can seem like rocket science to the inundated. But not to worry because after reading this, you will be able to impress your family and friends by sounding like a bona fide sake connoisseur.


What separates premium grade sake from the rest?

Before delving into the different types of sake and their sub-classes, we will first take a look at what separates premium brands from the regular types.

The following information has to do with how sake is made. If you are not familiar with the process, then you can quickly read the basics at the Tokyo National Research Institute of Brewing website.

Rice polishing ratio:

Rice has an inner core made up of starch and an outer layer of protein and fat. The less protein and fat in the sake, the higher the quality.

So how do they separate the outer from the inner layer? With rice polishing, of course.

Rice polishing is the first step in the sake manufacturing process and works by milling away a certain percentage of the outer layer of each rice granule. For example, a 70% rice polishing ratio means that 70% of the rice granule remains after 30% of the outer layer has been polished off.

What you need to take away from this is that premium sake follows a 50-70% rice polishing ratio while non-premium brands generally use a 90% polishing ratio.

The more each rice granule is polished, the more refined the taste of the sake and the fruitier its aroma.

Rice koji ratio:

Adding koji mold spores is the third step in the brewing process right after polishing and washing the rice. The role of the koji spores is to produce enzymes which convert the starch into sugar.

The number of koji spores mixed into the rice is one of the factors that separates premium brands from the rest.

To qualify as premium, the number of koji spores added must be at least 15% of the total rice weight. For example, if a batch consists of 100kg rice, then koji spores with a total weight of no less than 15kg should be mixed in with it.

The amount of distilled alcohol:

Japanese law states that premium sake cannot have quantities of distilled alcohol exceeding more than 10% of its total rice weight. In other words, a batch containing 70kg of rice can add a maximum of 7kg distilled alcohol.

Some are under the impression that the addition of distilled alcohol is a sign of low quality, but that’s not true because small amounts are beneficial as it enhances the natural taste of the sake and improves its aroma.


The Different Types of Sake

Now that you know how premium differs from the rest, we can take a closer look at the different types of sake and their sub-classes.

The first three we will mention – junmai-shu, ginjo-shu, and honjozo-shu, are what’s known as specially designated sakes, which is the official fancy way of saying premium brands. Combined they make up 20% of the market.

Junmai-shu

Junmai-shu translates to ‘pure rice sake’ and is named so for lacking additives. It’s because of this purity that it features a well-rounded rice based flavor with slightly higher acidic levels than most other varieties.

There are no minimum rice polishing requirements, but most are polished to a 70% ratio. Also, under Japanese law, junmai-shu producers have to state the rice polishing percentage on the bottles.

Additionally, to legally qualify as a junmai, the sake must contain at least a 15% koji rice ratio.

Honjozo-shu

To distinguish between a honjozo and a junmai in a blind tasting test is difficult although the former is lighter on the palate. Also, honjozo has a much stronger and pleasant aroma.

After all, it’s made almost the same way as junmai and follows the same respectable 70% rice polishing ratio.

What sets it apart though is the addition of distilled alcohol which never exceeds 10% of the total rice weight, thus securing its status as a specially designated sake.

The addition of extra alcohol doesn’t mean that honjozo-shu has a higher alcohol percentage than junmai-shu. As a matter of fact, they have the same alcohol percentage since each gets watered down to similar levels – unless one of them is labeled as genshu.

Ginjo-shu

As you can see, the only real difference between junmai-shu and honjozo-shu is the addition of distilled alcohol. Ginjo-shu also has distilled alcohol but what sets it apart is its more skillful and meticulous brewing process.

To help you fully understand, first read about the basic sake brewing process at the Tokyo National Research Institute of Brewing website. It’s a quick and easy read.

Done? Great!

With the ginjo-shu brewing process, every rice granule is soaked in water to the point where each one holds the exact same moisture level. Not an easy feat to accomplish! Furthermore, a different strain of yeast is used, and the fermentation room is kept at a much cooler temperature.

All of this combined with an impressive 60% rice polishing ratio results in a super refined sake with a complex, yet delicate flavor.

Premium sake subcategories

Browse the sake aisle of your local liquor store, and you are bound to come across some types of sake that are not as straightforward as the ones already mentioned.

For example, do you know what a tokubetsu junmai is? And did you know that a junmai can also be a ginjo?

Allow me to explain.

Tokubetsu:

There are two types of tokubetsu sakes – tokubetsu honjozo and tokubetsu junmai.

Tokubetsu translates to special. In most cases, it implies that a higher rice polishing ratio was used, but there could be other reasons for it being labeled as such. It’s best to check the label because the reason will be stated there.

Junmai ginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu:

The following two are hybrids of junmai and ginjo – junmai ginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu. Both are considered to be the apex of sake brewing among many die-hard sake enthusiasts.

Junmai ginjo-shu: A pure rice sake with a rice polishing ratio of 60%.

Junmai daiginjo-shu: A top grade pure rice sake, or the Johnny Walker Blue Label of sakes as I like to call it, thanks to its impressive 50% rice polishing ratio.

Futsu-shu

If you ever had a bad experience with sake, you probably drank too much of this stuff. The name of this mass-produced sake translates to ‘normal sake’ and makes up around 80% of the market.

Low-end futsu-shu causes head-splitting hangovers thanks to the high amounts of distilled alcohol and sometimes even sugar. Also, its measly 90% on average rice polishing ratio ensures everything but a refined taste.

Yes, the low-end varieties are vulgar, but it’s possible to enjoy a decent mid-range bottle of futsu-shu as long as it’s done in moderation.

Sparkling Sake

Sparkling sake first started gaining popularity in 2010, and as of today, there are more than 100 brands of this variety to choose from.

It looks just like sparkling wine and has a fresh, light and sweet taste comparable to champagne. This makes it easier to drink than other types of sake and with a lower alcohol percentage of 6% helps make it a popular choice among women, the younger generation and sake beginners.

Although, there are sparkling brands with higher 10 to 16% alcohol percentages just in case you happen to drink like a sailor.

There are premium and non-premium brands to choose from, and you may be glad to know that the legendary junmai daiginjo-shu is available in sparkling too.

Namazake

The Japanese word nama translates to raw or live, and in the case of sake, it means to be unpasteurized.

Namazake is stored and consumed differently than other types of sake, but before we get into that, we will first explain what it means for sake to be unpasteurized.

Regular sake is heated twice, before storage and once again before bottling. This is done to ensure that most enzymes and bacteria are killed off. Namazake doesn’t undergo these heating processes and is, therefore sold complete with enzymes and bacteria still alive in the bottle.

Doing so has both pros and cons.

On the plus side, namazake has a uniquely refreshing taste which makes it especially popular during the spring season.

Earlier I mentioned that namazake is stored and consumed differently than regular types of sake and this is the downside. Firstly, namazake has to be kept cool at temperatures between 5 to 10 degrees Celcius at all times, and secondly, the entire bottle has to be consumed in one sitting once opened. On second thought, the last point may not be a downside for some people. But by failing to keep it cool and not finishing it once opened could spoil it.

Also, namazake is available in both premium and non-premium grades.

If you want a surprisingly refreshing type of sake that will give you the perfect excuse to drink the entire bottle in one sitting then give namazake a try.

Nigorizake

A bottle of nigorizake can easily be identified by the cloudy appearance of the sake which is caused by partly dissolved rice particles floating around. For this reason, it’s sometimes understandably called cloudy sake, but some make the mistake of calling it unfiltered sake.

The term unfiltered sake implies that it has not been filtered when in actual fact it has. As a matter of fact, filtering sake is mandatory under Japanese law because for a drink to be legally classified as sake it has to undergo some sort of filtration process.

All other types of sake are filtered twice while nigorizake only once via a slightly wider mesh. This single wide mesh filtration allows for some of the rice particles to make their way into the final product, giving it that cloudy appearance.

What you are left with is one of the sweetest tasting sakes available which is why it pairs so perfectly with spicy food.

Also, just like namazake, it has to be kept chilled and consumed in one sitting.

Genshu

You may notice the word genshu displayed on certain bottles of sake. All it means is that it has not been diluted and the sake therefore, has an above average alcohol percentage of between 18-21%.

If a brew has been diluted to bring the alcohol percentage down by no more than 1%, then it can still be classified as genshu.

The opposite of genshu is seishu and means that the brew has been diluted to bring the alcohol percentage down to the average 15-16%.

Shiboritate

Sake is aged but not in the same way as wine. Most brands, after manufacturing, is stored for 6 months to a year before bottling to mellow the flavor out a bit.

Shiboritate, on the other hand, skips this aging process and therefore has a wilder flavor that is comparable to white wine.


Conclusion:

It’s easy to get confused with all the different types of sake on the market but it becomes simple once you understand the basic brewing process and the terminology used.


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