Sake doesn't capture the same worldwide attention or reputation as fine wine or whiskey. But Japan's national drink, is as fascinating as beverages come. For novice sake sippers, the variety of different types of sake can be surprising.
At its most basic, sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage (nihonshu) made from special sake rice. What separates most of the various sake varieties is the rice polishing ratio. Before brewing, the master sake brewer (toji) mills the rice, shucking away its outer grain. What's left is a dense rice starch core. The higher the degree of polishing, the higher-quality sake produced. (More or less.)
Although sake is often called Japanese rice wine, the label is not quite apt. In many ways, sake is closer to beer than wine. Like beer, sake is brewed and fermented with yeast. The sake-brewing process is helped along with a special mold called koji. The koji mold breaks down rice starches into sugar for fermentation. Unlike wine or beer, it's done in tandem with fermenting. This parallel fermentation process is what separates sake from other alcoholic beverages.
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)
Comparing sake to 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 is (i.e. how much of the original rice grain remains before brewing);
- Whether 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 sake variations, on the other hand, use lower-quality rice that's less refined. They 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 all the different sake types. For each of the main varieties, we've included sake taste profiles & characteristics.
The main types of sake
The broad sake classification of junmai (junmai-shu) refers to sake made purely from rice, koji, yeast, and water. No other sake ingredients may be 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 broad classification, nailing down a flavor profile can prove difficult. Junmai sake can range between high-end daiginjo and affordable sakes at the lower end of the rice-polishing spectrum.
In general, junmai sake offers a fuller body and more savory notes than other varieties. You'll also often sense a pique of acidity.
Many sake 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.
There's one distinct differentiating factor between honjozo and junmai. In honjozo sake, brewer's alcohol is added at the end of the fermentation process.
Adding distilled alcohol gives honjozo sake, in general, a smoother and lighter body. In general, honjozo is more complex, earthier, drier, and less acidic. It also tends to be more fragrant than pure rice sake.
Honjozo is enjoyable both chilled and warmed. With its lighter body and earthier flavors, however, many sake drinkers prefer it as a warm sake.
Ginjo (ginjo-shu) and Junmai Ginjo
Ginjo sakes present the first degree of premium sake. Ginjo (ginjo-shu) uses rice that's been milled to at least 60% of the original grain size.
The more refined rice-polishing process removes more of the outer rice husk. The fibers and proteins in the outer layer can sometimes affect fermentation and result in less desirable flavors.
Ginjo sake is fermented using special yeasts for longer periods of time. Fermentation is also done 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 super 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 percent!
The more polished rice grain means daiginjo sakes offer the most complex flavor profiles of all the different varieties. It's also the most fragrant sake of the bunch.
As daiginjo represents the best-of-the-best in the sake world, these brews command a premium price. If you're going to learn how to drink sake like the experts, 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 always some varieties that don't 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 with over 70% of its grain remaining. In some cases, the rice polishing ratio can even be as high as 90% in this type of sake.
The rice grains used to brew futsushu also tend to be lower-quality. Combined with its minimal milling rate, 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 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 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 refers to sake that hasn't been pasteurized. Any type of junmai, ginjo, daiginjo or honjozo could be labelled as namazake. These unpasteurized sakes need to be refrigerated to keep their flavor.
Nigori sake (Nigori-zake)
Nigori sake, or nigori-zake, refers to sake that hasn't been filtered. Unfiltered sake is cloudy and may even have some koji rice particles floating within it. Nigori sakes are often sweeter than filtered sake. They're commonly drank during dessert.
More and more sake brands are hopping onto the organic sake bandwagon. Getting an organic certification begins by growing sake ingredients locally. Organic sake uses nothing but the purest of natural methods. At this point, organic sakes are still a niche product.
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. In Japan, sparkling sake becoming the toast of choice for special occasions. The bubbles in sparking sake form during a second fermentation process.
Like craft beer, jizake is "craft sake" produced by smaller local sake breweries. Jizake sake is often brewed in smaller batches than larger commercial sake brands.
Koshu refers to sake that's aged for more than one year up to about five years. Koshu sake is generally stronger and earthier than those aged to the 9 to 12 months standard.
Namachozo refers to a sake that's only been pasteurized once. This generally happens after bottling. Like namazake, namachozo needs to be refrigerated.
Genshu is the label given undiluted sake. In other words, genshu sakes don't have water added to them before bottling. The sake alcohol content of genshu is higher, usually between 18 to 19 percent. Genshu sake is better enjoyed paired with a meal than as a casual drink.
Meaning "special," tokubetsu is term added onto the junmai and honjozo qualifications. Both tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo are distinguished by one or two factors. To qualify as tokubetsu, they must have: a) a rice polishing ratio below 60%; or b) use premium sake rice or special brewing methods. Tokubetsu junmai & honjozo are often more expensive than their category peers.
Taru refers to sake that's been stored in cedar barrels. Like barrel-aged whiskeys, taru sake tends to feature earthier and woodsier tones.
Arabashiri is a sake from the first run in a batch. Arabashiri sake leaves the pressing machine under less pressure than normal. It results in a cloudier and fuller body than the rest of the batch.