Sake: A Primer

Sake comes in several types. The categories are distinguished by the way they are made or their ingredients, but unlike wine not by the rice variety used or the region.

Junmai-shu (純米酒): Literally “pure-rice sake,” junmai is made from rice, koji, yeast and water. It doesn’t have added alcohol or a minimum polishing ratio. The minimum polishing ratio of 70 percent (meaning 30 percent of the grain was milled or polished away) was abolished in 2003. Junmai-shu is often noted for being full bodied and having robust, earthy flavors. Originally all sake was junmai-shu.

Futsu-shu (普通酒): Literally “regular sake,” this everyday drink is a majority of Japan’s sake about 60 percent. Futsu-shu is made from table rice, with added organic acids, amino acids, sugar and generous amounts of brewer’s alcohol. What futsu-shu lacks in depth, it makes up for with easy drinkability. There are exceptions: Japan’s National Tax Agency can designate a junmai-shu as futsu-shu if it’s made from low-grade rice or less than 15 percent koji even if no alcohol is added it will be categorized as futsu-shu.

Honjozo-shu (本醸造酒): Literally meaning “true brewed sake,” honjozo is made from rice, koji, yeast, water and a limited percentage of high-proof alcohol which is added at the tail end of the fermentation process. The rice used in honjozo-shu must have a polishing ratio of at least 70 percent, meaning that 30 percent of the grain is milled or polished away. The added alcohol helps retain aromas, as scents easily fuse onto ethanol, it also results in a brew that is lighter, milder and easier to drink. The added alcohol also helps fortify and preserve the sake.

Ginjo-shu (吟醸酒): At least 40 percent of the rice must be polished, leaving 60 percent of the grain. Ginjo sake is made from rice, koji, yeast, water and brewer’s alcohol unless it’s junmai ginjo-shu, which doesn’t have added alcohol. Ginjo sake is known for its fruity or floral fragrances.

Daiginjo-shu (大吟醸酒): Dai means “great” and Daiginjo is the apex of ginjo. At least 50 percent of each grain is polished, generally resulting in brews that are even more aromatic, and expensive, than regular ginjo-shu. Daiginjo-shu is made from rice, koji, yeast, water and added brewer’s alcohol, unless it’s a junmai daiginjo-shu, in which case the alcohol content is purely from rice.

* Daiginjo and Ginjo are typically brewed at lower temperatures. This slows the fermentation to up to five weeks, resulting in a sake with low acidity and fruity aromas. Unless specified as junmai, ginjo and daiginjo sakes have added alcohol.

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