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Sake Classification 101: The Grades of Sake

Sake Classification 101: The Grades of Sake

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July 30, 2021
With such a wide variety of sake available today, it can often be difficult to choose the perfect bottle. Understanding the different grades of sake and what to expect is crucial to selecting a bottle that suits your personal tasting preference or the occasion.

The sake categorisation system may appear quite complex at first glance, however there is a system to which the artisans of this wonderful brew have organised their delicious offerings. Starting from the most common types of sake to additional brewing choices and styles that are currently popular amongst sake drinkers, we break down the different types of sake that exist today.

The various types of sake in each grade have distinct differences in their flavour profiling and it’s all based on how it’s made and the type of rice it’s made with. At its very core, it all comes down to understanding the foundations of grading it. So what is a sake grade and how does it work?

Rice polishing ratio

Rice Polishing ratio
Rice Polishing ratio
How sake is graded is directly entwined with the ratios or percentage of rice polishing ( or Seimai-buai) that occurs during the brewing process. Sake is made from the starchy core of rice that has been “milled” and polished to remove the proteins, fats and acids which are packed in the outer layers that aren’t used in the process. The higher the polishing ratio, the cleaner and more refined flavor produced.

In order for a sake to qualify as premium grade or ‘Special Designation’ sake, rice used must be polished to 70% or less of its original size or it doesn’t make the cut.

Junmai and Aruten are the two overarching categories of sake. Junmai means “pure rice” and consists of only rice, rice koji, water and yeast while Aruten allows for a small addition of a neutral spirit to be added in order to create aroma, water is then added later in the process to dilute the alcohol and lighten the flavor.

Grades of sake

Grades of Sake
Grades of Sake

Basic Sake (Futsu-shu or Sanzoshu)

With no minimum milling requirements and fewer alcohol quality regulations, Futsu-shu is a value category which is considered “table sake” and includes the addition of sugar and other additives.

Typically a sake bottle will be labeled with it’s premium grade, if it qualifies, however the Futsu-shu grade rarely appears on labels as it’s a basic grade. Basic Sake (Futsu-shu or Sanzoshu)

With no minimum milling requirements and fewer alcohol quality regulations, Futsu-shu is a value category which is considered “table sake” and includes the addition of sugar and other additives.

Typically a sake bottle will be labeled with it’s premium grade, if it qualifies, however the Futsu-shu grade rarely appears on labels as it’s a basic grade.

Junmai

The term “Junmai” means that no alcohol is added. As one of the most dense and least aromatic sake on the beginning end of the spectrum, Junmai sake delivers an earthy, bitter profile with high acidity. The Junmai experience favours the savoury umami and mineral notes over fruitiness at this level, which allows versatility in drinking temperatures and flexibility in pairing with a wide variety of food.

Typically milled to a minimum of 70%, the addition of a neutral spirit is not allowed in this grade of sake.
Our sommelier recommends:

Premium Sake (Tokutei Meishoshu)

The premium Japanese sake category is more heavily regulated and further legal grading is separated by the following factors:
  1. Whether a neutral spirit is added during production
  2. The extent to which the rice has been milled/ polished
Addition of alcohol ( Junmai or Aruten)

This is the primary separation within the premium sake category, it either contains an added neutral spirit or it doesn’t.

Unadulterated sake, pure of added spirits or alcohol is labelled as Junmai or Junmai-shu.

Nearly all basic Aruten sake contains added alcohol, however it’s generally limited to no more than 10% of the final batch and added at the final stages of fermentation before pressing.

Honjozo

Honjozo is lighter and more aromatic than Junmai, yet still delivers a smooth robust and savoury profile while remaining ever-so-slightly sweet and and more fragrant.

This sake can be enjoyed at room temperature or slightly warm. Traditionally Honjozo requires rice to be polished to a minimum of 70%, with a small amount of neutral spirit added during the brewing process.

Ginjo & Junmai Ginjo

Falling within the upper echelons of the sake grade, Ginjo sake is split into four sub-types:

Ginjo (alcohol added) - Polishing ratio of 60% or less Junmai Ginjo (no alcohol added) - Polishing ratio of 60% or less

Daiginjo (alcohol added) - Polishing ratio of 50% or less Junmai Daiginjo (no alcohol added) - Polishing ratio to 50% or less).

The price of this grade of sake is usually higher and influenced by the result of a lower final yield due to higher polishing ratio of the rice. Ginjo sake has a lighter, more fragrant flavor and delivers a much softer texture and acidity, which pairs excellently with sushi and lighter dishes. Often finishing with a slight burn, smaller cups (or o-choko) or a wine glass work well to emphasize aromas.

Despite the reference to sake grade, ginjo can also be used to describe other aspects such as production methods and flavor profile with a typical ginjo style sake embodied with a light, fruity or floral aroma and noticeably lower acidity.

Junmai Ginjo on the other hand has a medium body with smooth umami. This type of sake is similar to Ginjo, aromatic with a fruity dominance so it’s best to avoid rich flavours and serve chilled to room temperature.

Our sommelier recommends:

Daiginjo & Junmai Daiginjo

Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are known traditionally to represent the epitome of sake brewing and the main style of sake seen at national and international sake competitions.

Further divided into each category by whether alcohol is added during the brewing process, both boast a minimum of 50% rice polishing rate.

Junmai Daiginjo traditionally favours lighter, more floral notes and is considered a relatively fragrant type of Junmai Sake. It features a clean, bitter-free experience with a subtle background umami, and best served chilled as heating can stunt it’s aromatic powers.

Daiginjo on the other hand, due to it’s added alcohol, delivers an even more aromatic and clean flavour profile, with a soft, smooth mouthfeel.

Considered a rather “elegant” style of sake, daiginjo is popular with many. It’s best served chilled and paired wonderfully with fresh ocean delights and light dishes.
Sommelier Recommendations:

Tokubestu Junmai and Tokubestu Honjozo

Last but definitely not the least, Tokubestu sake, also meaning “special” sake must meet one or more of the 3 following criteria to qualify:
  1. It’s made with an officially recognised sake grade rice
  2. The polishing ratio is 60% or less
  3. The sake has been brewed with a special ingredient or method
The term Tokubestu is often used to emphasize the unique properties of a sake.

Now that you understand the different types of sake and their properties, choose the one that will best suit you from our sommelier’s curated collection. Want to try them all? Subscribe for our monthly Sake Sub Club and receive 3 special bottles each month delivered straight to your door.

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