Sake: The National Beverage of Japan(I)
2,000 years ago, the Japanese sake once was a sacrificial offering for gods. Nowadays, it is the national beverage of Japan that is renowned in the world. Sake is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice. To be specific, nihonshu (Japanese alcohol) is the right word to call “sake” in English because “sake” in Japanese refers to all alcoholic drinks, including beer, wine, whisky, and so on.
There are many types of Japanese sake. For travelers, it’s hard to understand the difference and pick a top-grade sake. The categorization criteria for the Japanese sake include two factors: rice polishing ratio and addition of alcohol. According to these two factors, Japanese sake can be divided into five main categories. Here is a brief introduction!
Rice Polishing Ratio
Rice polishing ratio (RPR) refers to the percentage of remaining grain after polishing. In other words, the higher the RPR is, the less grain has been polished away. The reason why the rice needs to be polished is that the interior part of rice is full of starch that is essential for saccharification fermentation while the bran is full of fat and protein that may spoil the flavor of a liquid.
According to the RPR, Japanese sake can be classified into 3 types:
- Daiginjo: Daiginjo requires a RPR of at least 50%.
- Ginjo: Ginjo requires a RPR of at least 60%.
- Honjozo: Honjozo requires a RPR of at least 70%.
Generally speaking, the more polished the grain is, the better the taste and the higher the price. Therefore, Daiginjo and Ginjo are regarded as the premium sake. It is enjoyable to drink them alone to taste their special aroma and flavor. Moreover, they taste better after being chilled. Compared with Daiginjo and Ginjo, Honjonzo is more versatile. It is appropriate to serve as a table wine and drink with different cuisine at a wide range of temperatures.
Lower RPR means that the sake is brewed with more polished grain, which often creates a cleaner beverage with fruity and floral fragrances. However, Sake with higher RPR tastes richer and drier. Most brewers and sake companies provide products with different RPR to meet various demands and preferences.
Addition of Alcohol
During the brewing, some sake will be added distilled alcohol to enhance its flavor or smoothness. However, premium sake is reputed for not containing additive alcohol. Then, the Japanese sakes can be classified according to whether distilled alcohol is added or not.
- Junmai: Sake brewed without additive alcohol
- Honjozo: Sake brewed with additive alcohol to enhance flavor.
You must have noticed that Honjozo also appears in the classification based on RPR. Then, what’s the difference between them? The answer is that there is no difference. Honjozo uses rice polished to at least 70% and is added distilled alcohol. Similarly, the terms above can be combined. For example, a “Junmai Daiginjo” is sake made of grains polished to at least 50% without any added alcohol.
By combining the terms above, here are the 6 most common types of sake: Daiginjo, Junmai Daiginjo, Ginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai, and Honjozo. Although Junmai Daiginjo is regarded as the apex premium sake, it doesn’t mean that other sake tastes bad. Actually, they are all premium sake with subtly variation to meet different preferences.
Compared with them, Futsushu is the veritable not-premium sake. Futsushu is an ordinary and affordable sake that doesn’t need to follow the strict regulation of premium sake. The grain used to brew Futusushu is barely polished and there is no limitation on adding alcohol. Its flavor varies greatly, therefore, you can also find a hidden treasure that tastes really good among them.