The drinking culture in Japan is one of the richest in the world, and its various types of sake arguably rank first on the country’s list of favorite drinks.
Outside Japan, most people first meet sake in sushi restaurants, usually during happy hour. This boozy drink served in charming cups can be enjoyed hot or cold.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the world of sake, especially for newbies. However, this rice-based brew isn’t as complicated as it might appear.
Before you know the different types of sake, you first need to know what it is.
What Is Sake?
Considered Japan’s national beverage, sake is a fermented rice drink made through a process called multiple parallel fermentation. Brewing sake uses water, yeast, polished sake mai rice, and Aspergillus Oryzae or koji, a mold also used to ferment soy sauce.
This drink is not something new. It has been enjoyed since the 3rd century AD, although its history can be traced back to the 2nd Century BC when rice and the brewing technique were brought in from China.
Fine sakes get aged for more than a year, and this drink usually has an alcohol volume content between 15% to 20%.
Before you say “kanpai,” take a look at the different types of sake below.
Junmai sake is historically the way sake was made and enjoyed.
For this brew, the rice should be milled to various levels, from 80% with 20% removal to 65% with 35% removal. Usually, these milling percentages are on the label.
Brewing Junmai uses only water, yeast, rice, and koji. It does not contain any additives such as alcohol or sugar.
Junmai sake is full-bodied, and you’ll notice its earthy and rice-influenced flavors.
While every brewer is unique, most Junmai sake pride itself on having impact and depth. It’s also not as fragrant as other types of sake.
This type is the highest grade of sake, and because of that, it is often the drink of choice for special occasions.
This sophisticated drink is produced with a light style added with aromatics.
Before a sake can qualify as Junmai Daiginjo, it must be made with rice polished to half its weight.
Then, the rice gets mixed with koji, transforming starch into sugar during fermentation. After fermenting, it is not allowed to be fortified with distilled alcohol.
This sake is also very labor-intensive to make since brewers have to follow stringent quality control.
The production cost is also high. As a result, Junmai Daiginjo is usually produced only in small quantities. Overall, the elegance and complexity of this sake make it the perfect pair for foods such as sashimi.
This type of sake is the second-highest grade of sake you can enjoy.
It is usually served chilled since the temperature helps preserve its fruity and floral aroma and flavor.
In Japanese, Junmai means “pure rice.” This quality is considered a non-additive sake classification. It is simply Ginjo not fortified by distilled alcohol.
To qualify as Junmai Ginjo, it must consist of polished rice grains. This process removes the bran from the rice grain’s outer surface to help to improve its taste.
This type of sake also requires at least 60 percent polishing.
This type is another high-grade sake made using a labor-intensive process.
Although it is less fine than Junmai Daiginjo, it is still common to see this type of sake enjoyed in special ceremonies and occasions.
To qualify for for this type, it must be made with polished rice grain. This sake requires 50 percent polishing.
The major element of this sake’s production is the separation of the solids from liquids after its fermentation stage.
The finest Daiginjo sake is usually placed in mesh bags, suspended above tanks that catch the falling liquid without needing to press it.
Ginjo is a type of sake characterized by its fruity flavor and light aroma.
When you take a sip of this sake, its notes remind you of white flowers and apples. Because of this, Ginjo sake is the perfect match for seafood dishes, fried foods, and sushi.
Ginjo shares the same milling and polishing standards as Junmai Ginjo, with 40% removal and 60% remaining.
However, brewers add a bit of alcohol to lighten and clean up this sake. This addition also adds to its flavor.
The added alcohol does not fortify this sake but only brings out its unique texture and aromatics. This type of sake is best served chilled.
Honjozo is a type of everyday sake with a dry flavor and pleasant aromatics.
This sake type is popular among customers because of its mellow taste. This quality makes it easy to drink anytime.
There are different types of Honjozo sake, and its taste usually depends on the type of rice the brewers use.
Although its production process is quite similar to Junmai sake, this type of sake has a little bit of neutral alcohol added during the fermentation stage.
Because of this very subtle difference in its production process, beginners may be unable to tell a Junmai sake from a Honjozo.
Seasoned sake drinkers can only tell it apart by its lightness. Honjozo also lacks full texture when compared to Junmai sake.
This type of sake has not been diluted after it has been pressed.
If water gets added to the sake within a range that decreases its alcohol content (but not exceeding 1%), it can also be called Genshu.
In most cases, including where brewer’s alcohol is added, Genshu’s alcohol content usually falls between 18% to 20%.
Because of the brewing process, this type of sake was only enjoyed in sake breweries, but it is more widely available today.
One of the major characteristics of this type of sake is its body and aroma, which tends to be powerful and rich. This sake is usually enjoyed cold or with ice.
This type of sake is perfect for you if you’re a fan of mellow drinks.
Koshu is sake that gets aged before being released in the market. The more formal term for this type of sake aged for more than three years is Jukusei Koshu.
Typically, this sake gets aged in a large vessel that resembles a tank, and its color turns from gold to amber over time. When aged for longer, it will even resemble soy sauce.
Generally, sake has a dark and savory flavor, but after it is aged, it will get mellow. However, you’ll still get a feel of its earthiness and fragrance.
The sake grade and other stages in the brewing process also make a difference in the overall taste of this drink.
Nigori means “cloudy” in Japanese. This unfiltered sake contains rice solids not fermented during the production process.
Upon tasting this sake, you’ll notice its unique, creamy, and sweeter taste compared to clear types of sake.
The color of this sake usually ranges from barely cloudy or “usonigori” to chewy ones that almost have a bite to them.
A lot of beginners find this sake intimidating, but its creaminess is natural since the mesh where the sake passes through has large openings.
This process causes the rice solids to escape and mix with the liquid. When buying this sake, shake it before opening it because the sediments may settle in the bottom over time.
The name of this sake means fresh or raw. Namazake refers to “unpasteurized” sake.
The sake you usually find in the market today is mostly pasteurized in its brewing process to kill bacteria and speed up its aging.
However, Namazake is only pasteurized only one time or none at all. This sake has a very bright, fruity, and fresh taste.
Keep it in the fridge for storage since its flavor and aroma may change if kept at room temperature.
This sake also needs to be consumed immediately. An unopened bottle can last up to 6 months. Meanwhile, unopened bottles only last one week in the fridge.
This type of sake covers everyday drinking sake known for its affordability.
Despite its price, this sake’s flavor profile is still outstanding since the point of Futsuu-shu is to make the finest sake with the best value.
Considering this, large sake breweries supply most of the world’s Futsuu-shu. But there are also small breweries that specialize in this type of sake.
Brewers of Futsuu-shu usually follow an affordable brewing method, and the rice is also blended with brewer’s alcohol to help keep the production costs down. This sake is best chilled.
This type of sake only undergoes one pasteurization or heat-treatment process before it is bottled and shipped.
Typically, sake goes through this process twice. The first comes after being pressed and before being stored.
The second pasteurization comes before bottling. This sake has a refreshing and tangy flavor. When chilled, this sake also intensifies its mellow aroma and sweetness.
The opposite of this sake is called Nama-zume. For this sake, it is pasteurized only before it is stored and not before it is bottled.
In 1909, researchers revolutionized the sake brewing process when they discovered that the work involved in mixing the yeast starter from the Kimoto method was not needed.
Brewers found that the yeast can still thrive by adding more water and keeping the moto at a higher temperature.
Because of this method, Yamahai was born. Drinkers seek this type of sake because of its rich flavor, which is high in umami.
Sparkling sake includes any type of sake with an effervescent quality achieved through fermentation or manual carbonation using carbon dioxide.
While every type of sake has bubbles thanks to fermentation, this usually evaporates and leaves the sake flat.
However, sparkling sake adds an active yeast during the production process or is bottled to achieve fizziness.
While this type of sake usually has a low alcohol percentage, some brewers offer sparkling sake with the same alcohol volume content as ordinary table sake.
Drinking this sake is a refreshing way to experience its potential health benefits, especially regarding digestion and reduced risk for diseases.