Classifying Sake

By Ellyn Peratikou

Last month, industry expert Oliver Hilton-Johnson introduced us to Japan’s national beverage, sake. This month he explores the main types of sake and the distinctions between them so you know what to order!

Last month we discovered there are around 30,000 different sake in Japan, each with its own unique qualities, flavours and aromas. We also learnt sake can, very roughly, be divided into two different flavour styles: (1) fruity, zesty, floral types and (2) those whose focus is on promoting the flavours of the rice. However, like wine, you cannot tell which of these two ‘styles’ a sake falls into from looking at the bottle or reading the name from a menu unless you are savvy with how sake is classified. Take the wine example. If you had no idea what a merlot was it would be impossible to guess its characteristics; however, we’re familiar with the grape – we’ve tried it, we like it – so we can guess red fruit flavours, easy tannins and a soft finish. So too with sake.

Classifying sake

Basic sake classification is simple: you only need to remember four words. With wine we are used to classifying by grape varietal and/or geographical provenance (Zinfandel / Burgundy, for example). Premium sake is instead classified in two ways:

1.    How “polished” (milled) the rice grains used to make the sake are, and
2.    Whether a tiny amount of “brewers alcohol” (distilled alcohol) has been added

The first classification results in three types (the first three words to learn!): Daiginjo, Ginjo and Honjozo. For the second classification, the word “junmai” indicates that alcohol has not been added, (the last word you need to learn).
The diagram below explains the classifications further (click to enlarge)

sake classifications

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The triangular shape represents the volume of the different types produced, as you can see the top designation – Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo (remember, “junmai” means that alcohol has not been added) has the least volume produced; it is the most prized and exclusive.

Why polish the rice?

The rice is polished (milled) to access the starch at the centre of the grain. The more you mill, the more you are getting rid of the outside and isolating the starchy centre. The “rice polishing ratio” in the diagram above tells you how much of the rice grain remains and is a minimum. Thus you can see that the very top designation – Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo – must have had at least half (50%) of the outside of the rice grains milled off.

By removing the surrounding layers of the rice grain, keeping the starchy centre, you will result in clean-tasting sake with fruity notes. If you mill less and allow other ingredients from the outside of the rice grain to remain you will tend to get thicker, fuller flavours emerging.
It is well worth noting that milling the rice results in the different types of sake. The ‘top’ designation is not necessarily ‘better’ it entirely depends on your personal taste!

Why is alcohol added?

Alcohol is not added to fortify or increase the alcoholic content of the sake; instead, it helps draw out the flavours during the brewing process and can be thought of as a flavour enhancer! After alcohol is added the sake is usually diluted to bring it back down and in line with other sake at about 15%.

Characteristics of the types of sake

The top three classifications are known as ‘premium sake’ and are the most popular and easily available in the UK.

The very top classification is Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo. These sake represent the pinnacle of the brewers craft; expect an exceptionally refined taste with light, fruity flavours and aromas. Generally best drunk cold.

The second classification is Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo. These sake are not quite as refined as Daiginjo but still, generally light, fruity and great cold.

The third classification of premium sake is Honjozo and Junmai. With these sake the emphasis is on bringing out the flavours of the rice. They are great with food and can be drunk at a variety of temperatures.

Finally, Futsushu is ‘non-premium sake’ (no regulation on rice polishing levels, etc.) yet accounts for 75% of all the sake produced in Japan. It is often overshadowed by its premium brothers and therefore overlooked in the West; however good futsushu is fabulous, reasonably priced and versatile. Again, the emphasis is on the flavours of the rice. If you’ve ever had bad, harsh, gut-rot sake it’s likely to be a poor quality Futsushu, so be careful but if you find a good one it’s well worth it!

Next month, you will be excited to discover that there are special types of sake out there that are variations on the above main designations. Next month, industry expert, Oliver Hilton-Johnson, will explore the fascinating world of ‘special’ sake!

About the author
Oliver is a Sake Specialist and the Director of Tengu Sake, a sake import, wholesale & retail company. Tengu Sake supplies quality sake to some of the country’s finest restaurants as well as delivering directly to the public via www.tengusake.com. Oliver is Sake Educator for the British Sake Association and leads sake talks, tastings and food pairings throughout the UK.

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