Types of SakeYour understanding of polishing and junmai (from above) will help you see the differences between the various types of sake.
There are so many different types of sake that — to keep things simple — we’re going to focus only on some major types and classifications. Along with a good cup, this information is all you need to enjoy some sake tasting at a specialty sake shop, bar, or izakaya.
You can classify sake by several factors, including the type of rice used, where it was produced, the degree to which the rice has been polished, brewing processes, how it was filtered, and more.
We want you to enjoy sake tasting — not overwhelm you — so here is a handy list of the main types and classifications of sake you will encounter. If you learn even just a few of these, you will know more about sake than 99 percent of the travelers who visit Japan.
As mentioned earlier, junmai refers to pure rice (純米) (non-additive) sake. Additionally, the junmai classification means that the rice used has been polished to at least 70 percent. While it’s hard to over-generalize, junmai sake tends to have a rich full body with an intense, slightly acidic flavor.
This type of sake can be particularly nice when served warm or at room temperature.
Honjozo (本醸造) also uses rice that has been polished to at least 70 percent (as with junmai). However, honjozo, by definition, contains a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol, which is added to smooth out the flavor and aroma of the sake. Honjozo sakes are often light and easy to drink, and can be enjoyed both warm or chilled.
Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo
Ginjo (吟醸) is premium sake that uses rice that has been polished to at least 60 percent. It is brewed using special yeast and fermentation techniques. The result is often a light, fruity, and complex flavor that is usually quite fragrant. It’s easy to drink and often (though certainly not as a rule) served chilled.
Junmai ginjo is simply ginjo sake that also fits the “pure rice” (no additives) definition.
Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo
Daiginjo (大吟醸) is super premium sake (hence the “dai,” or “big”) and is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the brewer’s art. It requires precise brewing methods and uses rice that has been polished all the way down to at least 50 percent. Daiginjo sakes are often relatively pricey and are usually served chilled to bring out their nice light, complex flavors and aromas.
Junmai daiginjo is simply daiginjo sake that also fits the “pure rice” (no additives) definition.
Futsushu (普通種) is sometimes referred to as table sake. The rice has barely been polished (somewhere between 70 and 93 percent), and — while we’re definitely not qualified to be sake snobs — is the only stuff we would probably recommend staying away from. Surprisingly, you can get really good-quality sake for very reasonable prices, so unless you’re looking for a bad hangover (and not-so-special flavor), stay away from futsushu.
Although sake is not generally aged like wine, it’s usually allowed to mature for around six months or more while the flavors mellow out. However, shiboritate (しぼりたて) sake goes directly from the presses into the bottles and out to market. (People generally either love it or hate it.) Shiboritate sake tends to be wild and fruity, and some drinkers even liken it to white wine.
Most sake is pasteurized twice: once just after brewing, and once more before shipping. Nama-zake (生酒) is unique in that it is unpasteurized, and as such it has to be refrigerated to be kept fresh. While it of course also depends on other factors, it often has a fresh, fruity flavor with a sweet aroma.
Nigori (濁り) sake is cloudy white and coarsely filtered with very small bits of rice floating around in it. It’s usually sweet and creamy, and can range from silky smooth to thick and chunky. This type of sake seems to be far more popular in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan than in Japan.
Jizake (地酒) means “local sake” and is a great word to keep in mind when traveling to different regions of Japan. Sake is brewed throughout the country, and good jizake usually goes extremely well with each region’s local cuisine — and since it’s local, it’s also usually fresh and often nicely priced.
Please remember, these tasting guidelines are designed to provide a baseline introduction to sake. There are many factors that can change the characteristics of any sake (the rice and water used, skill of the brewers, etc.), so please expect variations when it comes to each sake’s profile, and keep an open mind as you try different sakes.