Nestled between the super premium ginjo grade and the two lower classifications of junmai and honjozo lies the ambiguous and often overlooked tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo grades of sake. The reason they are ambiguous is that the word tokubetsu simply means "special" when translated into English. However, when examining the labels, if is often unclear exactly why they warrant such a bold title. The truth is often actually not very much, but this does not mean that they should be ignored.
In order for a sake to qualify for this category it must meet only one of three criteria. The first, and most common, is that the rice used must have been polished down to a ratio (精米歩合) of at least 60%. Next, and also common, is that it must be brewed using special brewers rice (酒造好適米). And lastly, and in keeping with the ambiguous theme, it must be "special" in some other way. Now this of course opens up numerous possibilities for what could be considered special. However, it is rare to come across a tokubetsu that doesn't qualify for either, or both, of the first two reasons.
So is "special" sake nothing more than a marketing ploy to increase sales? Well in short, no, definitely not! Although the name might be rather misleading to say the least, there are often some fantastic stuff to be found amongst this rarer category. Although there are numerous reasons why a brewer might choose to produce a tokubetsu, it usually stems from them brewing something of slightly better quality compared to their standard junmai or honjozo, but not quite good enough to match or surpass their ginjo grades. Another common reason might be simply because they don't want to encroach on the sales of their existing core products. Whatever the reason, these are something a bit different, not necessarily special, and definitely worth a look in if you see them.