Sake grades, sake classifications, or types, influence the taste and price of sake. Sake can be divided into two main categories: premium (tokutei meishou-shu) and table sake (futsushu). There are six main classes of premium sake. The classifcations are based on two major things. First, the amount the rice grains are polished (semei-buai, rice polishing ratio). The second is if there is any added jozo (distilled) alcohol, or if the sake is made purely from rice, water, koji (fungus), and yeast.
What is Semei-buai (rice polishing ratio)?
Rice polishing ratio refers to how much of a grain of rice is left after milling.
If the rice polishing ratio = 70%, this means:
% of grain milled away = 30%
% of grain remaining after milling = 70%
If the rice polishing ratio = 60%, this means:
% of grain milled away = 40%
% of grain remaining after milling = 60%
Why does rice polishing ratio matter?
Sake rice is polished to remove the impurities, proteins, and fats near the surface of the rice grain. This leaves behind the starchy center of the rice grain. Sake that has a lower polishing ratio (meaning MORE of the rice is polished away, remember the ratio refers to the amout of rice left behind after polishing!) tends to have pure, delicate flavors. The fruity and floral flavors are more obvious. It also tends to be more expensive, because its takes more rice and more labor to make a bottle of sake. Sake with a higher polishing ratio has more of the proteins and fats left on the grain, so the sake is usually more full bodied with rice, earthy, or spicy flavors.
What is jozo (distilled) alcohol?
Jozo (distilled) alcohol is a neutral brewers alcohol that can be added to sake in small amounts.
Jozo alcohol sometimes gets a bad name because it can be added to futushu (table sake) to increase the total amount and reduce costs.
With premium sake though, its a different story. Only a tiny bit of jozo alcohol can be added, and in this small amount it can enhance the aroma, taste, and texture of the sake. It can make a sake lighter in body. It isn’t enough to really increase the overall alcohol percentage or dilute the sake. It can help a skilled brewer to change the aroma and taste profiles and bring out the ginjo-ka flavors (delicate, floral and fruity qualities), resulting in a smooth and wonderful to drink sake.
Premium vs. table sake (futsushu)
Premium sake production is tightly regulated by the government. It can have added jozo (distiled) alcohol added, but only up to a maximum of 10% of the total dry weight of the rice used in production. Premium sake also has special requirements for rice, yeast, and brewing techniques.
Non-premium sake is often called table sake, or futsushu. Table sake has no requirement for rice polishing. Jozo (distilled) alcohol can be added up to 50% of the dry rice weight used in production, but it would be unusual to add that much!
Once upon a time, all sake was futsushu. Over the centuries, the brewing process has been improved upon and evolved. Today, premium sake is becoming more popular, especially with younger drinkers. Now its more common for young people to go out on the weekend and buy a bottle of premium sake. It costs more, but since its a once-a-week splurge, it’s worth it. In contrast, in previous generations it was more common for people to drink a little sake every night with dinner at home, which probably would have been non-premium table sake (futsushu). There is still a lot more futsushu produced than premium sake, but futsushu production has been slowly declining while premium sake production has been slowing increasing.
Premium sake classifications:
Honjozo (本醸造) Genuine brew
Honjozo sake is the lowest grade of premium sake that has added jozo alcohol. The jozo alcohol allows the brewer to achieve different flavors and aromas. Jozo alcohol can be added up to a maximum of 10% of the total dry weight of the rice used in production. The rice polishing ratio must be 70% or less. This means at least 30% of the rice grain is milled away. Honjozo tends to have similar flavors to junmai (rice, earthy, or spicy), but is slightly lighter in body.
Junmai (純米) Pure rice
Junmai sake is the lowest grade of premium sake that is pure rice sake with no added alcohol. There is no legal rice polishing ratio to qualify as a junmai sake, but commonly the rice polishing ratio is 70% or less. Junmai tends to have rice, earthy, or spicy flavors.
Tokubetsu Honjozo (特別本醸造) Special Genuine brew
Tokubetsu means “special”. This is a little bit of a vague classification, but it means that some special technique was used. This could mean a lower rice polishing ratio, or another special brewing technique was used. For some reason, this sake is not just a normal honjozo, but it doesn’t quite fit into the ginjo class either (or the brewer decided not to lable as ginjo for their own reasons). Tokubetsu isn’t one of the main sake six classifications, so we haven’t included it on the chart.
Tokubetsu Junmai (特別純米) Special Pure rice
The same as tokubetsu honjozo except this is pure rice sake with no added alcohol.
Ginjo (吟醸) Special brew
The rice polishing ratio must be 60% or less. This means at least 40% of the rice grain is milled away. Ginjo styles of sake also have stricter regualations for special sake rice, special yeast, lower fermentation temperatures, and longer fermentation. This makes ginjo sake more expensive to produce, but results in much more delicate, complex, and balanced flavors and aromas. Ginjo sake shouldn’t be served hot, because the heat destroys these delicate flavors. Ginjo flavors and aromas tend to be more fruity and floral.
Junmai Ginjo (純米吟醸) Pure rice, Special brew
The same as ginjo except this is pure rice sake with no added alcohol.
Daiginjo (大吟醸) Very Special brew
The same as ginjo, except the rice polishing ratio must be 50% or less. This means at least 50% of the rice grain is milled away.
Junmai Daiginjo (純米大吟醸) Pure rice, Very Special brew
The same as daiginjo except this is pure rice sake with no added alcohol.
Author: Lani Cantor Vatland
Lani is the Chief Creative Officer / Sake Sommelier (WSET Global Level 3 in Sake) at the Norwegian Sake Association. Foodie and sommelier by night, she is a designer and web implementer at Megabite as by day. Lani is American/half-Japanese. She moved around alot, but grew up mostly in Seattle and Los Angeles before landing in Stavanger in 2008, with her Norwegian husband.