Sake Styles and Categories
Let us guide you through the two broad categories of premium and basic saké and the many different styles within that make saké so versatile when pairing with food. Discovering your preferred styles and flavor profiles is the first step in finding your new favorite saké!
PREMIUM AND BASIC
At the most rudimentary level there are two basic saké categories: basic and premium.
Premium saké is closely regulated and may only contain water, rice, koji mold, yeast and for some styles, a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol.
Basic saké may contain other ingredients such as flavor additives, sugars and acids. It is common for asian restaurants to serve warm table sake that is of a basic sake grade.
Fun Fact: The Japanese term for basic saké is Futsu-shu. It is important to note that while a saké may have qualifiers that place it into the basic saké category, there does exist high-end futsu-shu styles such as Kasumi Tsuru's Kimoto Extra Dry and Yoshinogawa's Gensen Karakuchi. These so-called 'basic' saké rival premium sake in both flavor and craftsmanship.
A premium saké will fall into one of eight subcategories. Two production choices determine the vast majority of saké categories: 1) Mill/polish rate and 2) whether any distilled alcohol was added.
The Mill or polish rate determines whether a saké is a futsu-shu, ginjo or daiginjo saké. The more the rice is polished, fats, acids and proteins will be less prevalent in the brew. This is particularly important when the brewer wishes to achieve a flavor profile that is very crisp, clean, delicate, fruity and/or floral. For styles rich in umami, this is less important.
Futsu-shu saké does not have a polish rate stipulation. Higher-end futsu-shu tends to be around 70% polish rate.
Ginjo saké must be polished to at most 60%. This means 40% of the grain was milled away.
Daiginjo saké must be polished to at most 50%, meaning 50% of the grain was milled away. Some daiginjo saké is milled to a percentage much lower than 50% and some saké such as G Fifty is milled to 50% but chooses not to identify as a daiginjo despite meeting the technical requirements.
Junmai or 'pure saké' adheres strictly to the four main ingredient brewing process which means only water, rice, koji mold and yeast are used. Distilled alcohol is prohibited from junmai saké. If a saké does not have the term 'junmai' in front of it, this means it contains distilled alcohol.
Example: A saké made with 60% polished rice and without distilled alcohol is a 'Junmai Ginjo.' It will likely feature a fruity/floral flavor and aroma and be best served chilled.
CATEGORIES OF SAKE
Saké made using rice coarsely milled - usually 70% - or higher that may also contain additional ingredients such as flavor enhancers, sugars and acids. Generally a low-grade product brewed in large quantities and sold as table saké to be served hot or warmed to mask unwanted bitterness or alcohol. However, there are very high quality futsu-shu grade saké being made, such as ones that are being made with saké-grade rice or special yeast. It’s good to keep in mind that since the category is defined by mill/polish rate, this removes the consideration that a brewer may have chosen to intentionally retain a larger amount of the rice grain to achieve a specific flavor profile.
A versatile premium saké that occupies a grey area between ginjo and futsu-shu because the polish rate is around 70% but only a small amount of brewer's alcohol is allowed beyond the core water, rice, koji and yeast ingredients. In many cases Honjozo also falls between the umami style bran/honey/earthy and ginjo style fruity/floral flavor characteristics, delivering a unique and often light bodied experience. Honjozos are delicious across a variety of temperatures.
Literally meaning "special," Tokubetsu further separates a honjozo or junmai in any of three qualifying cases. 1) A saké is polished to 60% or below. 2) The saké is made 100 percent from saké-specific rice. 3) Features legally recognized quality-enhancing process. While a saké must qualify to use the title of Tokubetsu, it is a brewer's choice whether or not to identify their saké as such. For example, all ginjo and daiginjo saké meet a tokubetsu requirement yet few choose to carry the title.
Super-premium saké made with rice milled below 60% and a small amount of distilled alcohol for stylistic purposes. Like daiginjo the brewer uses a grain with very little fat or protein content which yields delicate fresh flavors with low acidity and lighter body but also has additional control in tuning the flavor with the added alcohol. Ginjo saké is brewed at lower temperatures to stress the yeast into producing fruity or floral flavors and aromas and is also best enjoyed chilled.
It is important to note that the addition of distilled alcohol in ginjo style saké is purely for stylistic purposes and not used to determine the ABV in the final product. Brewers achieve the desired ABV of the saké via dilution, or brewing it from the beginning with a specific ABV in mind (*see Genshu)
Super premium saké made with rice milled below 60%, giving the brewer a grain with very little fat or protein content which yields delicate fresh flavors with low acidity and lighter body. Junmai ginjo saké prohibits the use of distilled alcohol and is brewed at lower temperatures to stress the yeast into producing fruity or floral flavors. At this time, U.S. law prohibits the addition of distilled alcohol to saké so all American saké is either junmai, junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo.
Ultra-premium saké that is oft-considered the apex of the craft, daiginjo saké is made with rice milled below 50% with a small amount of distilled alcohol for stylistic purposes. Conceptually similar to ginjo the brewer uses a grain with little-to-no fat or protein content which yields highly delicate fresh flavors with low acidity and a feathery light body. Brewers may finely tune the flavor with the added alcohol and the brew process is usually carried out in small batches for a limited bottling run. Daiginjo saké is brewed at low temperatures to stress the yeast into producing fruity or floral flavors and aromas and is best enjoyed chilled.
It is important to note that the addition of distilled alcohol does not impact the perceived quality nor is it used to increased the alcohol content. The latter is most often addressed before bottling through dilution.
Ultra-premium saké that is oft-considered the apex of the craft, junmai daiginjo saké is made with rice milled below 50% but prohibits the use of distilled alcohol. Brewers use a grain with little-to-no fat or protein content which yields highly delicate fresh flavors with low acidity and a feathery light body. Without the ability to impact flavor with distilled alcohol, the brew process is solely responsible for the end product. Batches are generally small for competition and/or limited bottling runs. Junmai daiginjo saké is brewed at low temperatures to stress the yeast into producing fruity or floral flavors and aromas and is best enjoyed chilled.
During the first phase of fermentation, the Kimoto method is an old and labor intensive technique used to mix and aerate the main ferment starter by rhythmically pushing the mash with wooden poles . Whereas modern methods introduce lactic acid to the batch to help the yeast propagate more quickly, the lactic acid is naturally developed when brewed through this age-old method. Thus, the fermentation takes longer than modern brewing, but the result yields a rich, layered and complex umami profile.
A simplified version of kimoto, yamahai is also a laborious technique used to mix the fermentation starter, creating lactic acid naturally. The resulting saké is similarly complex with umami flavors and a higher acidity.
Nama denotes that a saké has not been pasteurized. Most saké is pasteurized once after fermentation and usually again just before bottling after a maturation period. Nama saké or sometimes referred to as 'Namazake' must be cold stored and enjoyed shortly after brewing/purchase for maximum freshness. Due to the dulling and muting effects on flavor and aroma pasteurization creates, Nama saké is a rare but great choice for those looking for a beverage with explosive ginjo flavor and pronounced aromatics.
Most saké is diluted with water to around 14-16% alcohold by volume (ABV) prior to bottling. However, genshu saké is not which tends to give it a heavier body and bolder flavor. Genshu saké usually runs between 18-20% ABV, making it ideal as-is and cocktails.
Creamy or cloudy in appearance, nigori saké has been either coarsely filtered to allow fermentation solids or lees to pass through to final product or solids can simply be added back in after fine filtering. Although the majority of saké today is filtered until clear using modern machinery, only nigori saké was possible for the first few thousand years of the beverage's existence due to technological limitations. Now considered more of a specialty saké, the nigori style generally creates a lightly sweet, creamy and luscious saké containing characteristics ranging from almond and honey to banana and cherry. Best enjoyed lightly chilled.
As brewers continue to evolve and innovate within the category, specialty styles such as sparkling saké are born. Carbon dioxide gas is added to a sweeter style to create a bubbly and easy drinking beverage. It is not a rule, but it is common for these to be packaged in single serving bottles at a lower alcohol content.
Aged saké. Extremely rare and generally aged between three to five years. Koshu saké often appears yellow, amber or brown in color and may contain aromas and flavor characteristics ranging from honey and caramel to pungent soy, meat broth or pickled vegetables. Best served at room temperature or heated.
Many saké is fined using active charcoal to remove all color, leaving a clear and colorless appearance. Clear, un-aged saké containing hints of yellow or lemongrass can be a sign that a saké is a muroka saké meaning the brewers did not use active charcoal to remove color.
A rare sweet style variation created by replacing the water added on the third day of building the main ferment with saké. This method kickstarts the starch to sugar conversion, forcing the yeast to catch up over a longer fermentation period. The excess sugars create a much sweeter and luscious flavor profile with a higher alcohol content prior to dilution.
Saké made using an age-old method of maturing the fermented liquid in Japanese cedar. Depending on the maturation duration, the saké will take on various levels of cedar aroma and flavor.