Sake, or more accurately nihonshu (Japanese alcohol) is a popular beverage enjoyed by many. But with the plethora of brands, labels and names it can be easy to get confused. Today we’ll try to dissect the meaning behind sake naming.
Junmai or no junmai
Sake can be split into two broad categories – junmai and not junmai. Junmai means ‘pure rice’. If a bottle of sake mentions junmai, it means that the sake is only brewed using rice, water, yeast and koji. This is written as 純米 in Japanese, so make a mental note and try to spot it in the next bottle you drink. However, just because a sake is not junmai doesn’t mean it is inferior. Skilled brewers can effectively use additives (brewer’s alcohol) to enhance flavour profiles and aromas of the sake.
Rice polishing ratio
Rice polishing ratio further classifies sake into 3 other categories. To brew sake, rice is usually first milled to remove the outer surface of rice. The core of a rice grain is rich in starch, while the surface of the rice has lots of fats, vitamins and proteins. Fats and proteins have very opinionated flavour profiles and might affect the taste of sake adversely, hence making rice polishing a necessary step before sake brewing.
A rice polishing ratio of 60% means that 40% of the outer surface of the rice grain was polished away, leaving 60% of the core remaining. Sakes brewed with more than 40% of rice polished away is classified as ginjo. A sake that is both made using only rice, water, yeast and koji is classified as junmai ginjo.
A rice polishing ratio of 50% and below (meaning 50% or more of rice is polished away) would brew sake that is classified as daiginjo. Likewise, junmai daiginjo signifies a sake brewed with no additives together with rice polishing ratio of 50% and below.
Anything with a rice polishing ratio of 70% and above is considered honjozo. Sake brewed with rice with low polishing ratios (more rice is milled, leaving less in the core) usually tastes more fragrant, has bright aromas and has pronounced and clear flavours. Again, this is not to say that sakes with high polishing ratios are inferior. Sake brewers who have the skill to use high polishing ratios, retaining more of the fat and protein of the outer part of the rice, can produce a sake that is balanced, clear, pronounced and aromatic. One such series is the Kaze no Mori ‘807’ from the Yucho Shuzo brewery, with 80% rice polishing ratio but still producing sake that is mind-blowingly aromatic and delicious.
You have to give it a try! View our Kaze no Mori series here.