The Basics: Beginners Guide to Sake Classifications
Updated: Sep 22, 2019
The Basics: Sake Classifications
Understanding the world of wine can be a really complicated affair. Aside from the obvious differences in colour, you have countless grape varieties, huge differences in sweetness and dryness, sparkling or non-sparkling types, the issue of finding suitable pairings with food etc etc. Then you have the problem of navigating the differences between “New World” and “Old World” wines. The latter of course includes French wines which only display a region rather than a grape variety on the label. As a result, they are notoriously difficult to understand without making a concerted effort to study each region. Old World wines also have the extra complication of having not just specific regions to consider, but different vineyard classifications within that region. From Gran Cru’s toVin de Table’s, it really can take a lifetime to fully understand them all.
Perhaps surprisingly, in the case of sake, understanding at least the general classifications is in truth a much easier prospect. Yet to a great many people, getting to grips with Japan’s nation beverage remains an even greater mystery. When you consider the obvious language barrier between Japanese producers and most overseas consumers, it is understandable why many find it such a bewildering prospect. The problem is compounded by the fact that in most countries outside of Japan there is a dearth of knowledgeable staff to make informed recommendations.
Speaking purely of my home country of Britain, when you do find a specialist shop dealing in sake, they are more than likely going to be some of the most knowledgeable, passionate and enthusiastic staff you will ever meet. However, such stores are still few and far between and are mostly only found in the south around London. Instead, the reality for most people involves standing in a Chinese supermarket staring at a pretty label wondering if it’s the wonderful stuff they hear about from hardened sake fans, or the cheap plonk that has put so many people of it in the past. You could call it a kind of label roulette. Sometimes you win and get a great bottle, and sometimes it really wasn’t what you were expecting at all.
Therefore, the purpose of this blog is to provide a complete beginners guide to the main classifications that divide up sake and hopefully make the buying experience that little bit easier. It should be pointed out that learning these will not be a sure-fire guarantee that you will pick out something you like every time. However, it will at least provide you with the peace of mind that what you are buying belongs to a certain production method and standard of quality. From this, you will be much better placed to begin learning about the more intricate aspects of this incredibly versatile drink, and can begin to figure out which particular styles you like and which you are not to your taste.
If you are inclined to study deeper beyond these general classifications, you will no-doubt notice that Sake labels often include some incredibly vague and confusing terminology. Don’t worry, I will cover these in my next blog. But before any of that will make sense, the best starting place is the seven basic classifications that form the sake family tree. So without further ado, the following bellow will cover the main classifications of sake that are essential for beginners to know.
So if anyone has looked at one of the numerous sake classification charts available online, they will have probably noticed that there are in fact first nine separate classifications rather than the seven I just mentioned. However, the tokubetsu variants, meaning special in Japanese, are merely sub-classifications of both junmai and honjozo, and therefore are not generally considered classifications in their own right. The finer details of what qualifies a sake for the title of “special” will unfortunately have to wait for another time. However, these four categories collectively form the entry level of what is widely referred to as Premium Sake, or tokuteimeishoshu (特定名称酒) in Japanese. As is clear from the chart, the only thing that is separating the top classifications from the bottom is rice polishing.
Yes, when it comes to sake, it isn’t the type of raw ingredients that separate the top shelf stuff from the cheap plonk, it is simply how much of the original grain of rice is left over after polishing. Nihonshu does technically have what could be considered a Gran Cru equivalent, which would be those made using a rice variant known as Yamada-Nishiki (山田錦 ). Specifically, the most famous example of Yamada rice is that harvested in the well known sake producing region of Hyogo Prefecture in central Japan. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the vast majority of the highest classification daiginjo is made using Yamada-Nishiki. However, a sake brewed using nothing but this type affords it no advantage on the premium chart. Therefore, unlike top Old World wines that place importance on a specific region and raw ingredients, in a nutshell, sake classifications place more of an emphasis on the standard of production.
But before anyone starts thinking that sake production is some kind of free-for-all, it should be pointed out that with the exception of futsu-shu, or table sake, premium varieties are by law only allowed to include the essential ingredients needed to make sake. In this respect sake production shares allot in common with the strict rules governing the process of beer brewing found in Germany which only permits, by law, the use of hops, barley, water and yeast. In the case of sake, only koji, water, yeast and distilled alcohol is allowed. Nothing else can be added to the mash at any stage of the process. In regards to the last ingredient, only a small amount of alcohol is allowed to be added. It is important to note that this addition is is not done to increase yields. Rather, a small addition can draw out stronger flavours and aromas in the sake. Regardless, it is the only thing separating the left and right side of the chart, and an important point in understanding the premium classifications.
Yes, again we have another incredibly simple thing to remember when it comes to understanding sake. If it doesn’t say junmai (純米) on the label, then it belongs somewhere or the right side of the chart, and means it has been made with the addition of a small amount of distilled alcohol. If it does, then it’s simply brewed using just rice, water, yeast and koji, hence the name junmai which means pure rice in Japanese. I will stress now though, the addition of alcohol does not mean it is an inferior product. Whether or not they are in-fact better than their alcohol added counterparts is a long running topic of contention amongst sake drinkers, and in truth, it seems for now at least that the junmai side are winning. I will save the finer details of which characteristics each type often display for another blog. However, in brief, those with added alcohol, sometimes referred to as aru-ten (アル添), come with their own style and qualities. Simply writing them off would be a huge shame in my humble opinion at least.
After the entry level variants we progress to the ginjo-shu variants, often referred to as “Super Premium”. These four classifications make up just 10% of all sake produced, and with their often wine like aromas and delicate flavours, are what is driving up interest in sake overseas. Renowned expert John Gauntner has written on several occasions that “If you remember one word about sake, let that word be ginjo“. It is good advice if you are either new to Sake or someone trying to get over the trauma of a terrible experience you had with some nasty stuff you tried in the past (very common story). Buying a ginjo-shu variant is a pretty safe bet that you will be pleased with your purchase. As I will get into next, everyone has different tastes and preferences. However, as I mentioned previously, the sake family tree is separated by an increasingly higher standard of production technique. Ginjo-shu is right at the pinnacle of this and virtually always made with the strictest of care and dedication.
However, Gauntner is also quick to point out that not everyone will love this premium style of sake all of the time. They can be extremely rich, and sometimes a bit overpowering after a few glasses. Yes they rarely disappoint in terms of quality, and can sometimes taste so similar to white wine that you could almost be hard pressed to tell the difference. But not everyone wants to drink white wine when they are drinking sake. In fact, speaking personally, having tasted some fantastic heated (熱燗) examples over the winter, I have recently been finding my way back to good honest honjozo. Again, in my own opinion of course, the lower classifications can often make much better session drinks. Like anything, it usually comes down to what suits the occasion best, and of course, personal preference.
Perhaps it’s a bit strange to finish at the bottom, but I will end with the classification that has almost become a swear word in the overseas sake community: futsu-shu. The name roughly translates as “ordinary sake”, but in truth, this classification can be very different from the premium variants. For example, futsū-shu is not subject to the strict rules that apply to tokuteimeishoshu, meaning the use of flavour enhancers like acids and sugars is permitted. Furthermore, the limits on how much alcohol can be added are greatly increased, a fact that has probably done the most damage to its reputation amongst the modern more health conscious consumer.
However, in keeping with the recurring theme that is ever present when discussing sake, probably the biggest factor separating the top stuff from everything else that falls into this category is production method. The most notable example of this is the lack of any restriction on the level of rice milling. Other possible differences in production that can affect the quality include how it is pressed, filtered, stored and even bottled. There are of course exceptions, but in general futsu-shu is simply more often than not made with less care and attention than the premium categories. That is the key difference.
Now I am not about to start pretending that in-fact futsu-shu simply has an unfair reputation, and that really these differences don’t make that much difference. They absolutely do! However, ignoring the obvious differences people have in taste, all I will say is that there are some real hidden gems to be found within this classification. Furthermore, these kinds of Sake are usually very cheap and therefore it’s not so much of a risk to by a small cup as a tester. As these types of sake are often only available locally, outside of the big brands of course, I recommend that if you get the chance to travel throughout Japan, give them a try. You may even uncover a hidden gem.
So that was my introduction to the sake family tree. If you remember the very basic information included in this blog you should be better prepared when buying or ordering in the future. But more importantly, I hope that the message within this blog is clear. Sake classifications are really just an increasing scale of production method. Yes the top classifications are more than likely going to be made with much better rice, and yes to most people they are going to be far more appealing, myself included. However, don’t simply write-off everything at the bottom. There is much to be gained from trying out the lower classifications, including futsu-shu. Furthermore, sake is an incredibly versatile drink, and one of its best aspects is how it seemingly manages to have a variety that fits every time and occasion.