Classification of sake

Premium sake, for classification into individual categories, uses terms such as Junmai, Ginjo or Daiginjo. In the text you will find what is the basic division, which arose from historical need, as well as the division according to the % of rice milling, because it affected both the quality and the price. At the same time, we have prepared for you a comprehensive overview of attributes that can be used with sake and which you can find on bottles of premium sake.

Basic classification

The basic classification of Japanese sake is into futsuu-shu (普通酒) – table sake – and tokutei-meishoshu (特定名称酒) – premium sake. Table sake, as the name suggests, is the cheapest sake on the market. Outside of Japan, you rarely find it, and even in Japan, it is considered more of a cheap drink. Premium sake is a high quality and handcrafted sake that accounts for about 40% of the market. From the consumer’s point of view, this is the best he can find on the market. There is a higher proportion of handwork in production and every brewer is rightfully proud of his sake. Premium sake is further divided into classic or junmai and fortified. Classic sake adheres to a method of production that has been historically known for centuries. On the contrary, fortified sake is a relatively new chapter, which was created during World War II. from the need to somehow continue production despite the lack of rice from which they would brew. The addition of distilled alcohol at the end of the fermentation process stops the fermentation. The volume of alcohol added may not exceed 10% by weight of the rice after milling on which the batch is based. In general, these sakes are more pronounced in both aroma and taste.

Classification based on % of rice milling

Another classification of sake is based on the % of rice milling. With the gradual introduction of mechanization into the process of milling rice, finer and more delicate sake began to emerge. This entailed the need to somehow determine the quality of the sake. Hand in hand with that, the price of the better ones rose. Therefore, the government intervened in the whole matter and the Ginjo category was created. The word Ginjo can be loosely translated as special care. For which the rice grains must be ground to 60% of their original size. And also they created category of Daiginjo, where the character Dai (大) means large or very, so Daiginjo is more loosely translated – very special care. To reach this category, it is necessary to grind the grains to 50%. This classification was created artificially because the Japanese tax office needed a key to impose taxes on sake. At the same time, it was found out to be the easiest way to describe the growing quality of sake. In general, the lower the percentage of milling, the better the quality. Currently, there are some sake makers who try to fight this by giving their sake names and no longer using terms like Ginjo or Daiginjo in their promotion. At present, voices are beginning to be heard calling for another system to be introduced. However, a new one has not yet been proposed and it has not been said what it should look like.

Classification according to attributes

Sake also has attributes, it’s just not like wine. Attributes in sake indicate changes in the established production process or the omission of a step. It is always necessary to state what type of sake it is (eg Junmai, Honjozo, etc.) and then the attributes are given. An example is Yamahai Junmai Nama Genshu – this is a non-fortified sake of the Junmai type, which is unpasteurized, undiluted and produced by the method of spontaneous fermentation. As can be seen from the example, the number of attributes sake can have is not limited and, if technologically possible, they can be combined. Click to go to attributes and their description.

純米 – Junmai

  • There is no fixed % of milling rate for this type of sake. Normally, most manufacturers lean to 80% because it gives the most optimal result.
  • Ingredients: Rice, Koji rice, Yeast, Water
  • These sakes have a full and rich taste, they are usually earthy, the acidity is at the level where it balances the natural residual sugar in the sake. Depending on the % of milling, they can also retain traces of rice aroma.

 純米吟醸 – Junmai Ginjo

  • For Junmai Ginjo, the milling rate is set at 60% or less. This means that the grain volume has been reduced by 40%.
  • Ingredients: Rice, Koji rice, Yeast, Water
  • Light and delicate taste, fruity and floral aroma.

純米大吟醸 – Junmai Daiginjo

  • For Junmai Daiginjo, the rice grain must be milled by at least 50%.
  • Ingredients: Rice, Koji rice, Yeast, Water
  • Similar characteristics to Ginjo, stronger scent and lighter body.
  • From the total amount of sake produced per year, Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo represent only 3-4% of the volume. Therefore, these sakes are rightly considered the pinnacle of every brewer’s skills.

本醸造 – Honjozo

  • Milling rate is set to 70% or below
  • Ingredients: Rice, Koji rice, Yeast, Water, Distilled alcohol
  • Light, dry, delicate aroma, crispy and clean finish, easy to drink

吟醸 – Ginjo

  • Milling rate is set to 60% or lower
  • Ingredients: Rice, Koji rice, Yeast, Water, Distilled alcohol
  • Light and delicate taste, fruity and floral aroma

大吟醸 – Daiginjo

  • Minimálně na 50% očištěno
  • Ingredients: Rice, Koji rice, Yeast, Water, Distilled alcohol
  • Similar characteristics to Ginjo, stronger scent and lighter body.
  • From the total amount of sake produced per year, Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo represent only 3-4% of the volume. Therefore, these sakes are rightly considered the pinnacle of every brewer’s skills.

Attributes associated with starter mash

生酛 – Kimoto is a traditional method of preparing a starter mash, which has been used for centuries. They used long wooden handles finished with a disc, which crush the rice into a porridge. This process is called yama-oroshi in Japanese. Today, this method is popular among some breweries, where the production was taken over by a younger brewer. 

山廃 – Yamahai is a simplified version of the previous method, which began to be used in the early 20th century. The Yamahai method omits the step of making rice porridge. Hence the name of this method, because the full name is “yama-oroshi haishi” – 山卸廃止, which means “not continuing with yama-oroshi”. Although this method was created to speed up the production of sake, it is still slower than the modern method. Today, it is mainly used for the production of sake, to which it adds earthy tones. 

速醸 – Sokujō or “rapid fermentation,” is a modern method of preparing the primary fermentation. Lactic acid, which is formed naturally during the previous two methods, is added to the base to suppress unwanted bacteria. This method usually produces lighter sake than kimoto or yamahai. Also, the use of this method is not mentioned on bottles, as it is the most common.

Attributes based on handling after main fermentation

生酒 – Namazake is unpasteurized sake that must be stored in the refrigerator and has a shorter shelf-life than classic sake.

原酒 – Genshu is undiluted sake. Most sake is diluted with water from the original 18-20% after fermentation, to 15-16% alcohol. Genshu is not diluted.

無濾過 – Muroka means unfiltered sake. In this case, however, it is not a filtration through carbon filters, or in other words it is not filtered through activated charcoal filters. However, it can be filtered through various membranes, but only after the mash has been pressed and got rid of solid particles, so that it is not cloudy. Carbon filtration can remove parts of the aroma and taste, so sake with the attribute Muroka has a more pronounced taste and might have yellowish color.

濁り酒 – Nigorizake is a cloudy sake. During pressing, a coarser mesh is used and so a part of the sediment is pressed together with the liquid. The resulting sake contains rice sediment. These sakes are mixed before serving to give the resulting liquid a milky color. However they are not considered a premium sake – Seishu (see below). 

清酒 – Seishu is the official state term for sake in Japan and refers to “clear / pure sake,” a term used in official terminology to describe a sake that has been completely filtered and is therefore clear. Thus, nigori and doburoku (see below) are not considered sake under Japanese law. Nigori can gain Seishu status if the sake is first fully filtered and then part of the sediment is added to the already finished sake.

古酒 – Koshu reffers to “aged sake”. Most sake is not left to mature, but this special sake can mature for years, giving it a yellowish color and honey tones..

樽酒 – Taruzake is sake, which matures in wooden barrels. The barrels are made of Japanese cedar (杉 – sugi). These barrels are very often opened on the occasion of the opening of new buildings, the conclusion of business contracts, during parties, and more. Because wood strongly influences the taste of this sake, premium sake is rarely used to fill these barrels.

搾立て – Shiboritate or “freshly pressed” sake, this designation is used for sake that has not been aged for six months in stainless steel tanks. It is usually more acidic and is therefore sometimes referred to as green or immature sake.

袋吊り – Fukurozuri refers to a method of pressing in which the liquid is separated from the sediment by hanging bags of mash in large tanks so that the liquid flows out spontaneously. Sake made by this method is sometimes referred to as shizukuzake (雫酒), which means “dripped sake”. This method is most often used for sake type Junmai Daiginjo or Daiginjo, although it does not have to be stated on the bottle. 

斗瓶囲い – Tobingakoi is a sake that, after pressing, is stored in 18-liter glass demijohns/carboys called tobin, with the toji (master brewer) choosing which sake to store there. Sake that is most often stored in tobin, is the one that will later be sent to a competition.

Other types of saké, which one can find

 甘酒 – Amazake is a traditional sweet Japanese low-alcohol drink made from fermented rice.

濁酒 – Doburoku refers to home-made sake, although this is prohibited by law in Japan. It is made by adding koji mold and water to cooked rice. It is then waited for the mixture to ferment spontaneously. It is most reminiscent of nigori with larger chunks of rice.

地酒 – Jizake refers to locally made sake. This term refers to micro sake breweries, similarly to a term known from beer brewing culture, where there are also micro breweries.

黒酒 – Kuroshu is a sake made from rice that is not milled, sometimes referred to as brown rice.

低精白酒 – Teiseihaku-shu is a term for sake that deliberately uses rice with the highest possible percentage of milling. It is generally believed that the lower the percentage of milling, the better. Since about 2005, sake has been produced in this way. Usually, the percentage of grinding is around 80%, and thanks to this, these sakes have a noticeable trace of rice in the taste.

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