This article is most useful if you’ve checked out our sake ingredients and how sake is made guides.
Historically, sake grades (or classifications) stem from the tax, legal and regulatory infrastructure in Japan and start with two principle categories:
Basic non-premium sake and
Premium ‘Special Designation’ sake.
The vast majority of sake produced today is still non-premium Futsushu, (regular ‘table Sake’) or Sanzoshu.
These types are typically brewed for maximum yield and value, using cheaper rice grades that are generally less polished (under 30% removed) and then brewed with significant amounts of distilled alcohol (jozo, in Japanese) and sometimes other additives. You can find some tasty Futsushu on the market but at London Sake we focus on the craft of premium sake.
Also referred to as ‘Special Designation’ Sake (or Tokutei Meishoshu in Japanese), this group is more precisely regulated and further categorised by two factors:
The addition of distilled alcohol during production
The extent to which the rice has been polished
These are used to determine the technical and legal grading of premium sake.
added Alcohol (junmai or aruten)
This is the main dividing line that runs through the premium sake category - you either have distilled alcohol added or you don’t. Sake produced without the addition of brewers alcohol is labelled Junmai - translated in English as ‘pure rice’ - and usually found in the name of all sake brewed in this way. You may also see the term Junmai-shu used, which simply means Junmai sake.
All basic sake has added alcohol but within the Special Designation grades the amounts are more strictly limited to no more than 10% of the final batch, usually added at the end of the main fermentation stage (‘moromi’) before pressing. This group of sake is sometimes referred to as Aruten.
Rice polishing ratio (Seimaibuai)
The extent to which rice is polished directly affects the classification of sake. Highly polished rice leaves little of the protein, fats or acids found in the outer casing of the rice and as a result fermentation produces a cleaner, more refined flavour.
To qualify to be a ‘Special Designation’ Sake, the rice used must be polished to 70% or less of its original size and the various categories are loosely based on defined bands of the rice polishing ratio (or Seimai-buai).
Over the years rice polishing has become a crude short-hand for quality; the more the rice is polished the better the sake. This is not always the case. There are many factors that determine the final product and it is much more down to the skill of the brewer to find the balance of all ingredients and precise brewing method that really counts. For us, this is the most enjoyable and inspiring part of discovering new sake .
Honjozo is a premium sake produced using rice that is milled down to 70% or less (usually between 70–60%) and includes a limited amount of brewers alcohol added to the fermenting mash before it is pressed. The addition of the alcohol and corresponding dilution with water produces a lighter flavour when compared to the pure brewed Junmai-shu (geeky fact: prior to a change in regulations in 2004, Junmai-shu was also required to use rice milled to 70% but this is no longer the case).
Ginjo (and junmai ginjo)
“At once the epitome of traditional wisdom and the fruit of modern technologies, ginjo-shu is the paragon of Japanese sake”
-Philip Harper — The Insider’s Guide to Sake
At the top end of the premium category lies the distinguished ginjo grade Sake. Ginjo, roughly translated as ‘Special Brew’, is split into four sub-types:
Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo (where rice is polished to 60% or less)
Daiginjo (‘great special brew’) and Junmai Daiginjo (where rice is polished to 50% or less).
Rice with fewer undesirable components for yeast to feed on, combined with colder temperatures, serves to force out fruity aromas and a lighter bodied Sake with lower acidity. Together, this is seen as typical of the ginjo style.
Milling away more of the rice however, results in a lower final yield for the brewer, and this contributes to the higher prices you will tend to find with these grades of Sake.
While ginjo is a technical classification it is also used as a descriptor for certain production methods, as well as the flavour profile and distinctive aroma (known as ginjo-ka), they’re designed to produce. So, not only is the rice polishing ratio important here but the use of special, often labour-intensive techniques, temperature of fermentation and the yeast strains used.
This lighter, fragrant style increased in popularity during what the trade folk call the ‘ginjo boom’ of the early 1980s. Today ginjo grades make up around 10% of all sake produced.
daiginjo (and junmai daiginjo)
Daiginjo is an extension of the ginjo category described above and can also be divided into Daiginjo (added alcohol) and Junmai Daiginjo (no added alcohol) varieties. Daiginjo, translated as ‘great special brew’, represents in many ways the pinnacle of sake production and is often the style breweries submit to national and international sake competitions.
Rice used for Daiginjo is required to be 50% or less. In many cases breweries will show off their expertise and pursuit for sake perfection by using rice polished far below this level. For example, Dassai 23 uses rice polished down to 23% of it’s original size.
That said, all this does not mean Daiginjo is ‘better’ than other grades of sake, this is very much down to personal preference. In our opinion there are just as many delicious sake using rice polished at 60%, 70% and even 80%.
Tokubetsu Junmai and Tokubetsu Honjozo
Meaning ‘special’, Tokubetsu sake is a somewhat trickier category to pin-down. To technically qualify a sake must have one or more of 3 properties:
it is made with a recognised sake grade rice
the rice has been polished down to 60% or less
produced with or using a noteworthy ingredient or technique
Tokubetsu is often used as a marketing term to make a product stand out but can also be useful in identifying interesting and great value sake. For example, the award-winning Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai.