Although it doesn’t quite have the same worldwide reputation as fine wine or whiskey, the world of sake, Japan’s national drink, is as fascinating as they come. The wide variety of types of sake can be surprising for uninitiated sake sippers!
In its most basic description, sake is an alcoholic beverage made from special sake rice fermented with yeast and a mold called koji. Of course, there are plenty more nuances in making sake as you’ll soon discover.
If you’re looking to master sake basics, one of the first things you’ll need to come to grips with is all the different varieties of sake.
There are five main types of sake:
- Junmai (junmai-shu)
- Honjozo (honjozo-shu)
- Ginjo (ginjo-shu)
- Daiginjo (daiginjo-shu)
Unlike wine, the different variants of sake aren’t determined by the type of main ingredient (rice) used. Instead, they’re mostly categorized by two main differences:
- How “polished” the rice used is (i.e. how much of the original rice grain remains before brewing);
- Whether additional brewer’s alcohol has been added.
As you’ll learn below, the absolute best sake is often those with the highest degree of rice polishing and no alcohol added.
Cheaper variations, on the other hand, use lower-quality rice that’s less refined and round out the taste by adding more alcohol after the brewing process.
Now, that you’ve got some idea of what to expect, let’s take a look at each of the sake taste profiles & characteristics of all the different main sake variants…
The sake classification of junmai (junmai-shu) refers broadly to sake made purely from rice, koji, yeast, and water with no other ingredients added.
More specifically, to qualify as junmai, the sake must:
- be made from rice polished to at least 70% of its original grain size;
- not have brewer’s alcohol added after fermentation.
Since junmai is a very broad classification, nailing down a specific flavor profile can be difficult.
Junmai sake can range anywhere between high-end daiginjo and other more affordable options at the lower end of the rice-polishing spectrum.
In general, junmai sake offers a fuller body and more savory notes than other varieties along with some acidity.
Many connoisseurs prefer standard junmai sakes warmed or at room temperature rather chilled.
Much like junmai, honjozo (honjozo-shu) is sake that uses rice polished to at least 70% of its original size.
The differentiating factor is that, unlike junmai, brewer’s alcohol is added to the sake at the end of the fermentation process.
This addition gives honjozo sake, in general, a smoother and lighter body. In general, honjozo is more complex, earthier, drier, less acidic, and more fragrant than pure rice sake.
Honjozo is enjoyable both chilled and warmed, although many sake drinkers prefer the latter.
Ginjo (Ginjo-shu) and Junmai Ginjo
The first degree of more premium sake, ginjo (ginjo-shu) uses rice that’s been milled to at least 60% of the original grain size.
This more refined rice-polishing process removes elements from the rice husk that can sometimes affect fermentation and result in less desirable flavors.
Ginjo sake is also fermented using special yeasts for longer periods of time at colder temperatures than run-of-the-mill junmai or honjozo. The result is a flavor that’s more complex and less earthy.
Ginjo-shu also tends to be more fragrant, sweeter, and fruitier than other varieties of sake. Ginjo sake is often best enjoyed chilled.
To meet the requirements of a junmai ginjo, the brewer must not add any alcohol after fermentation.
Daiginjo (Daiginjo-shu) and Junmai Daiginjo
Even more refined than ginjo is daiginjo (daiginjo-shu). These high-end premium sakes are brewed with rice that’s milled to no more than 50% of its original size. Some brewers may even go as low 23%!
Since most the grain has been heavily polished, the resulting sake tends to offer the most complex flavor profiles of all the different varieties. It’s also the most fragrant of the bunch.
As daiginjo represents the best-of-the-best in the sake world, these brews command a premium price point. If you’re going to learn how to drink sake, daiginjo is a fantastic starting point.
To qualify as a junmai daiginjo, no alcohol can be added to the brew after fermentation.
Like all types of alcohol, there’s usually some varieties that don’t quite cut it as premium. In sake, it’s futsushu.
Futsushu, also known as table sake, is any sake that doesn’t fit into the junmai or honzojo categories. In other words, futsushu is made with rice that’s still got over 70% of its grain remaining. In some cases, it can even be as high as 90%!
The minimal milling (and lower quality rice grains to begin with) means that futsushu is both the cheapest and least drinkable of all the sake varieties.
Often, a larger amount of extra alcohol is added to futsushu resulting in a much harsher flavor. Unlike other “pure” sake, sugars and organic acids may also be added.
Easy verdict: If you’re looking to appreciate sake for all its complexity, futsushu is probably not the way to go.
Other sake varieties
Besides the four main types of sake, there are several different sake varieties that can fall under each broader classification.
- Namazake: The term namazake refers to sake that hasn’t been pasteurized. Any type of junmai, ginjo, daiginjo or honjozo could be labelled as namazake. These need to be refrigerated to keep their flavor.
- Nigori-zake: This refers to sake that hasn’t been filtered. Unfiltered sake is cloudy and may even have some koji rice within it. Nigori sakes are often sweeter than filtered sake and drank during dessert.
- Organic: More and more sake brands are hopping onto the organic sake bandwagon by growing their ingredients locally using nothing but the purest of methods. At this point, however, organic sakes are still a fairly niche product.
- Sparkling: Although it’s still a small niche in the sake world, sparkling sake is Japan’s way of giving champagne a run for its money as the toast of choice for special occasions. The bubbles are formed as a result of a second fermentation process.
- Jizake: Similiar to craft beers, this is the name given to sake produced by smaller local breweries.
- Koshu: Refers to sake that’s aged for more than one year up to about 5 years. Koshu sake is generally stronger and earthier than those aged only to the 9 to 12 months standard.
- Namachozo: This refers to sake that’s only been pasteurized once. This generally happens after bottling. Like namazake, namachozo needs to be refrigerated.
- Genshu: Refers to any sake that’s been undiluted, in other words, hasn’t had water added to it before bottling. The higher sake alcohol content (usually as high as 18 to 19 percent) means that genshu sake is better when paired with a meal than as a casual drink.
- Taru sake: This term refers to sake that’s been stored in cedar barrels. Like whiskeys aged in a similar fashion, taru sake tends to have earthy and woody tones.
- Arabashiri: Refers to a sake that’s the first run out of the batch. It leaves the pressing machine under less pressure than normal, resulting in a cloudier and fuller body than the rest of the batch.