Here are the six commonly accepted sake categories:
These dependable categories of sake are the workhorses of the sake world.
The Junmai category is historically the “way sake was.” These brews can have their rice milled to many different levels from 80% with 20% removal to 65% with 35% removal as long as the milling percentages are on the label. The old norm was Junmai sake had to be milled to at least 70% remaining and 30% removed, but this is no longer the case. The result is that some Junmai can drink very rich and full-bodied, and some drink lighter and more elegant. Just remember that Junmai also means “rice and water only,” and it’s a great center of the plate food pairing sake that is perfect for most cuisines from salty and savory to rich and robust, fried and grilled to baked and steamed, and from spicy to complex. Good for chilled, room temperature, warming and heating.
Honjozo sake has the same rice milling standard that Junmai sake used to have 70% remaining and 30% removal. The difference with Honjozo is that the makers add a little “brewer’s alcohol” to lighten the sake and clean things up. Honjozo sake is not fortified sake – it is not made stronger by the added alcohol – in fact it makes a sake lighter and more refreshing. This category of sake is perfect for easy drinking and easy food pairings. Good for chilled, room temperature, warming and heating.
These elegant and flavorful categories of sake are bright, fun, and represent the big leap into the “premium” category of sake.
The Junmai Ginjo category of sake are mandated to have a rice polishing standard of 40% removal and 60% remaining. This segment of sake are made using only the simplest ingredients of rice, water, mold, and yeast. Remember the word Junmai means “rice and water only”, so Junmai Ginjo translates to rice and water milled to 60%. Junmai Ginjo is a great collection of brews that can be fruity and fresh to ricey and dry. This category is perfect for the sushi counter - clean and balanced cuisines – and easy sipping. Best served chilled.
Ginjo sake has the same milling/polishing standards of Junmai Ginjo, which means 40% removal and 60% remaining, but the difference is the makers use a little bit of “brewer’s alcohol” to clean and lighten up the sake, and in some cases can even make the sake more fruity and with more pop. Added alcohol doesn’t fortify Ginjo sake, but it’s used to bring out more aromatics and textures. Best served chilled.
These two categories represent the best of the best, the “A-list” in the sake maker’s industry.
The Junmai Daiginjo category has the highest standards of milling rates in the sake market with a minimum of 50% rice polishing and 50% remaining. But that standard is often surpassed by brewers looking to push the rice milling envelope that results in sakes that can be milled down to 35% down to 23% and even 7% remaining figures. These Ultra and Uber Junmai Daiginjo all drink with an elegance and sophistication of flavors and complexities. The entire category is exceptional for consuming on special occasions and gifting. Junmai Daiginjo sakes are fantastic on their own and great with Champagne fare and elegant appetizers. They are always served chilled.
The Daiginjo category has the same milling standards of 50% removal and 50% remaining but sake makers add a little “brewer’s alcohol” to lighten the brew and bring out more aromatics and softer textures. When sake maker’s send their brews to National Sake Appraisals and Competitions they usually send their Daiginjo sake. They are the ultimate Competition sakes that just jump out of the glass. Always served chilled they pair well with shellfish, sushi, sashimi, and elegant cocktail passing fare.
Now that you have grasped the fact that there are six major categories of sake, prepare for the idea that sake can be made in different fashions to produce more variations of sake. For example, if a brewer were to leave in some of the rice lees(coarsely filtered) the result would be a cloudy sake commonly referred to as Nigori. Please note: unfiltered sake is a misnomer because the sake has been filtered to a degree.
If a brewer decided to store his freshly brewed sake in cedar barrels or added cedar pieces to the tank, this would result in Taru (cedar sake).
This is an incredibly exciting and fresh collection of brews that represents sake in its rawest and most original form. Typically, sake is pasteurized twice; Hiire, to act as the preservative for keeping sake more stable in the bottle for a longer period of shelf-life time. There are no sulfites in sake. “Nama” or unpasteurized sake can be considered living or raw sake that appeals to those who like larger and more 3 dimensional flavors with exciting movement and feeling. Nama sake is released this way for a specific purpose. The “Toji” or head brewer, wants you to taste each particular Nama in that raw state to show you a different side of sake. They believe that the flavors and feelings are accentuated by not pasteurizing the sake to give you a different overall sake sensation. Typically, Nama sake should be served chilled and perhaps with a larger vessel like a white wine glass. And Nama sake is an excellent food-pairing category as it has more body, acidity, and flavors to pair with almost all types of cuisines including international spices and spicy American style sushi and rolls.
If a sake is pasteurized once, stored for a duration of time, and then released, it is Namazume. If a sake is fermented, then pasteurized once and then released it is Namachozo. Please note: Namazume and Namachozo are both considered Draft sake. But they both have more shelf stability than a Nama (unpasteurized sake).
There is small but fascinating segment called Koshu (aged sake). Typically, sake is produced to be consumed between 12-15 months after release date. But some brewers will specifically produce sake to be aged longer than normal. Our definition of Koshu sake are brews that have been purposely aged for over 3 years and then released. 5 years is also a common threshold for aging sake, and some brewers will go ten years and beyond. Typically, in the high end Daiginjo category these brews will be aged in very cold and extreme temperatures, which means the color of the sake doesn't change to the golden and then soy sauce-like color of sake that are aged at room temperatures.
Sake for Dessert
If brewers are looking to try something different, say by adding sake instead of more water to the brewing process, the result is Kijoshu (dessert sake). And lastly, if a brewer decides to allow his sake to reach peak fermentation without adding the typical amount of water to bring sake back to a diluted state of roughly 15%-16% alcohol level, then the result is a sake that has an alcohol percentage along the lines of 17%-19%, called Genshu (undiluted sake). Please note: Genshu sake can also be lower alcohol percentages such as 14-15%, and don't always pack a higher alcohol content.
The sparkling sake, Awa, category is one of the fastest growing segments in the sake industry. Sparkling Sake is not novelty or gimmicky sake. It is the real deal and many brewers are taking sparkling sake to new altitudes of clarity and elegance. If you are a Sparkling Wine or Champagne drinker, this category will speak to you. There are several different methods of production, and now there is even a “Japan Awasake Association'' that acts like a control agency for purity. Some brewers use carbonation, but most use a “secondary” or “lag” fermentation technique that sees the brew still active in the bottle thus creating good bubbles. There are definitely different styles from sweet with fat bubbles, to dry and very crisp with tight bubbles like a Brut. Also, Sparkling Sake usually has a lower alcohol content than typical sake with ranges from 5%-12%. And best of all Sparkling Sake works well in Champagne flutes to capture the bubble play, and pairs well with Champagne fare.