So what is ‘Premium Sake’? What qualifies it as such and how can we tell what it is?
Even though sake has been around between 1000-2000 years, the concept of Premium Sake is only about 40 years old. It has however caught on with great speed and premium sake is the fastest growing category in the market, especially in regard to exports outside of Japan. Premium sake current represents about 30% of all national sake production by volume. The rest is collectively known as Futsu-shu or, Table Sake.
Note though, that while the grading does give a ballpark indication to the taste and quality of the sake, the grading is legally defined purely on a technical requirement. As such, most breweries make at least 1 top-grade class sake, to prevent being left out.
So what is this requirement?
Milling Ratio of the Rice
Before sake production begins, the raw sake rice is almost always milled (or polished) to reveal more of the white center of the rice grain. While we can go into greater detail at a later date on why this is done, in summary, the higher the milling ratio, the more of the raw rice has been removed, the higher the grade of sake. To qualify for the base level of Premium Sake, the milling ratio has to be 70% or less. (i.e. 70% of the original rice grain is left after polishing.)
Due to the initial loss of raw material right from the start, as well as the greater detail required in the brewing process for higher grades, the price of sake generally increases accordingly with the grades.
What are the grades?
Honjozo & Junmai
Minimum milling rate : 70%
Entry into the premium sake class are the grades of Honjozo and Junmai* These are sometimes a great representation of the style of the brewery, and very often great value for money. Honjozo contains a small amount of distilled alcohol added during the production process, while Junmai is brewed with only rice, water and koji mold.
*Within this category also exists Tokubetsu Honjozo and Tokubetsu Junmai, which indicates that something is ‘special’ , such as a special rice or a higher milling rate.
Ginjo & Junmai Ginjo
Minimum milling rate : 60%
The process is more labor intensive here with a much higher level of dedication and craftsmanship. Flavors are lighter and with more elegance. Subtle notes begin to show. Ginjo contains a small amount of distilled alcohol added during the production process, while Junmai Ginjo is brewed with only rice, water and koji mold.
Daiginjo & Junmai Daiginjo
Minimum milling rate : 50%
This class takes the processes to the next level with absolute pain-staking detail and intensity in the production. Often the ultimate expression of the brewery, flavors are generally light and complex with floral overtones that lead to a sophisticated experience. While the minimum is 50%, it is fairly common to find sakes in this class that go down to 40% and beyond. As before, Daiginjo contains a small amount of distilled alcohol added during the production process, while Junmai Daiginjo is brewed with only rice, water and koji mold.
A final word on grading
2 Things to keep in mind though, each grade has a junmai-version, and a non-junmai version. While it’s easy to consider the junmai-versions to be ‘better’, it is not such a clear-cut definition. At this level, the addition of distilled alcohol is a technical decision to draw out flavors and aroma, which also tends to result in a lighter and more complex brew. When possible, try both, and decide which version you prefer for yourself.
Secondly, all of this can get very confusing when sometimes all you want is to quickly order a bottle of sake. In the words of Sensei John Gaunter, just remember ‘Ginjo’. That covers the top 2 grades, and if you see it anywhere on the bottle, (e.g. Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo) you’re sipping on the top ~12% of all national sake production and you’ll be in good company.
Until next time, drink well and Kampai!