Just like with beer and wine, there are different categories of saké, providing a wide variety of experiences. You simply won't know what you like best until you try them all. To get you started, here are some suggestions for each category. Happy tasting!
Futsu-shu (Foo-tsu-shoo): Basic saké generally made with the most added alcohol served warm or chilled. This lower grade category does not require premium grade saké rice nor a special milling requirement. “Lower grade” does not mean the final product can’t be delicious, though. Take, for example, Yoshinogawa Gensen Karakuchi: A classic extra dry saké that gains rave reviews from purists and explorers alike, contradicting notions that Futsu-shu saké is always low in quality.
Honjozo (Hone-jo-zo): A premium level saké that contains a small amount of added alcohol to enhance flavor and/or aroma. The delicately rich Murai Family Tokubetsu Honjozo is clean, complex with an incredible amount of aroma and flavor to explore.
Junmai (June-my): Pure premium saké, containing only rice, water, yeast and koji. As a Junmai, legally it cannot have anything added to it, but it also does not have a required milling rate. Because of this, complexity and flavor can vary greatly. A can of Kibo is the perfect Junmai to try out this category. Soft and mellow with a slightly dry finish. When warmed, you'll find hints of cantaloupe, cherry, red berries, and grape. For more information about Junmai, check out our previous post “Junmai: Pure Love”
Ginjo (Geen -jo): Saké made with rice polished down to 51-60% of its original size. As a non-Junmai you can add a tiny amount of alcohol to enhance flavor and/or aroma. Ginjo is super premium saké with light, fragrant and complex fruity and floral tasting profiles. In Yoshinogawa Gokujo you will find hints of anise, fresh herbs and fruits like peach and nectarine. A lingering finish provides a silky smooth mouthfeel.
Junmai Ginjo (June-my Geen-jo): Pure super premium saké made with rice polished 51-60% with nothing added. Try Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo; it has a perfect balance of flavor and texture, making it both a great first time and every day saké.
Daiginjo (Die-geen-jo): An ultra premium saké made with rice polished to at least a 50% polish rate (often lower) and has a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added for stylistic purposes. Try Murai Family Daiginjo for a clean, slightly creamy saké with subtle flavors of fruit and spice.
Junmai Daiginjo (June-my Die-geen-jo): Pure ultra premium saké made with rice polished to at least 50% with nothing added. Hakutsuru Sho-Une Junmai Daiginjo is an excellent example and a great value --velvety smooth with fruity aromas.
Tokubetsu Honjozo (Toe-koo-bet-sue) and Tokubetsu Junmai: Tokubetsu means “special” and denotes a special kind of Honjozo or Junmai. There are three ways for a saké to qualify as a “Tokubetsu”:
- The rice is polished to 60% or below
- The saké is made excluseively from sake-specific rice.
- Includes some other process that the brewer has arranged, such as a special aging.
The first of these is by far the most common and means that the saké could be labeled as a Ginjo or Junmai Ginjo, but the brewer has decided to label them as Tokubetsu instead. A wonderful example of this is Kasumi Tsuru Yamahai Tokubetsu Junmai. Bold, full-bodied, and a distinctly complex aroma with notes of mochi rice cake and toasted nuts leading to balanced and mature flavors both nutty and lightly sweet.
It is important to note that saké categories are guidelines intended to define quality and set an expectation for saké in the marketplace but there are always exceptions to the rule. While the classifications will provide a good guideline to increasingly higher quality saké, don't rule out exploration of those defined as non-premium or labeled as a style that you are unfamiliar with – you won’t know until you try!
One of the least commonly known things about saké is that each category can have a vast variety of styles. A Junmai Ginjo could be a Nigori, a Yamahai, Shiburitate, Genshu…it is simply amazing. We’ll talk more on styles next week.
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Stay tuned right here every Saké-Sunday for more tips, tricks and lessons to keep you fresh on saké. Next Sunday: What’s Your Style?