Category and classifications
Considered ‘the drink of the gods’ by the Japanese, nihonshu sake, a fermented Japanese alcoholic beverage, has become an important symbol of Japanese culture. Made from rice, water, ‘koji-kin’ (a mould which secretes enzymes) and yeast, sake is generally served during meals.
Nihonshu sake, a refined, complex product
Two categories: with and without added alcohol
- Junmai 純米
The word ‘Junmai’ means ‘pure rice’, this is applied to a nihonshu sake produced only from rice, koji, yeast and water, whose alcohol content comes from a 100% natural process.
- Honjozo 本醸造
Honjozo originates from the Edo period (1603-1868). These are nihonshu sakes to which distilled alcohol has been added to conserve certain volatile aromas. Since this fairly recent technique is often used to increase the alcohol content artificially, and the use of alcohol produced outside of Japan is permitted, the majority of the traditional producers only make junmai ‘pure rice’, using more traditional techniques.
Three classifications with different degrees of polishing
The nihonshu classification is determined by its ‘seimaibuai’: the percentage by weight left of each rice grain after polishing. The lower the percentage, the more the grain has been milled, resulting in finer, a more elegant sake. Superior quality nihonshu (the most renowned and most popular with connoisseurs) varies from 70 to 23%. This quality range is divided into three different groups:
- Junmai or Honjozo 純米/本醸造
Sake produced from polished rice grains which have been milled to 70-60% of their original weight.
- Junmai Ginjo or Ginjo 純米吟醸/吟醸
Sake produced from polished rice grains which have been milled to 60-50% of their original weight.
- Dai-ginjo or Junmai Dai-ginjo 大吟醸/純米大吟醸
Regarded as the most refined and luxurious of sakes and produced from polished rice grains which have been milled to 50% of their original weight.
Other types and characteristics
Like wines and spirits, there are many terms for nihonshu, which are used to describe its character and aromas. Amongst these are:
- Genshu 原酒
‘original-alcohol’, which means undiluted. This sake can contain up to 20% ABV. Concentrated and strongly flavoured, this sake is often drunk ‘on the rocks’.
- Hiya-oroshi 冷卸 / ひやおろし
‘to be stored in a cool environment’, i.e. in a cellar. This nihonshu sake is generally brewed during the winter, rested during the spring and summer, and then released onto the market in the autumn.
- Nama 生
‘unpasteurized’. This nihonshu sake is highly appreciated by connoisseurs, as its characteristics are very similar to those of the liquid squeezed from the press in the brewery. However it requires special storage.