Sake 101 – Types and Varieties of Sake

Last updated: June 6, 2017 

ginjo, daiginjo, honjozo, jumai
Different Types of Sake

While wine is classified by grape variety or region, classification of sake is rather complicated. It is interpreted different ways, and many people, including the Japanese, get confused with the uncommon words like daiginjo and honjozo.

Among the various sources of information, we decided to comply with the classification designated by the Japanese government for alcohol regulation and liquor tax purpose, which we believe is most comprehensive and authentic. But before we get into that, let’s clarify something you really want to know about sake varieties.

1) Sake is primarily divided into two categories: regular (futsu shu) and special (tokutei meisho shu)
2) “Special sake” is produced in specific methods, and the complicated classes such as ginjo and daiginjo belong to this category
3) All other types of sake, which are designed for everyday-drinking, fall under the category of “regular sake”
4) Many affordable labels, including ones served hot at Japanese restaurants, are “regular sake”

Regular Sake (Futsu Shu)

Regular sake represents over 80% of the entire sake market and is consumed widely throughout Japan and the world. There are no rules for production of regular sake. It does not necessarily mean that a product is lower quality or less tasty simply because it is classified as regular. With numerous products with different features, many products in this category are award-winning, great quality and/or following traditional brewing.

Special Sake (Tokutei Meisho Shu)

Special sake has eight sub-categories classified by raw ingredient, rate of rice milling and brewing method. They are basically a different combination of 1) junmai or honjozo, 2) ginjo or non-ginjo, and 3) special brewing process or ordinary process. It is typically considered that the former is more premium than the latter.

Sub-categories:

Classification of Sake
Click image to enlarge
Denotation Description
Junmai Junmai means “pure rice.” By definition junmai sake has no fermented alcohol added
Honjozo Jozo means “fermentation.” By definition honjozo sake has fermented alcohol added to lighten the flavor and to accentuate the unique aroma. The amount of fermented alcohol should not exceed 10% of rice weight
Ginjo Ginjo is often mistaken as minimum rate of rice milling but the Japanese government defines ginjo as sake made in a ginjo method. It refers to the process of using highly polished rice and fermenting in cold-temperature
Tokubetsu Tokubetu means “special.” If the sake is brewed in a special process, it is denoted as tokubetsu. Breweries must indicate the description of process on the label

Other Varieties of Sake

What is taruzake (cask sake)
Different Labels of Taru Zake (Cask Sake) Stacked Up

The following features are also used to classify sake:

Nama Zake Sake that is not heated for pasteurization after the final mash is pressed. It is characterized by a light, fresh flavor
Genshu It literally means “undiluted sake.” It has a deep, rich flavor and an alcohol content of from 17% to 20% because it has not been diluted with added water
Nigori Zake Sake that is milky white, as the mash is only lightly filtered using a coarse-texture cloth
Happoshu
(Sparkling Sake)
Carbonated sake, with a mouth feel reminiscent of champagne
Taru Zake
(Cask Sake)
Sake that is aged in casks and thus takes on the fragrance of the wood from which the cask is made
Koshu
(Aged Sake)
Sake that has been aged for a couple of years, or for upwards of five years or longer for vintage purpose. It is a new type of sake that has been emerging in recent years.

Sake 101 Series:
*What is Sake and How to Drink it
*Types and Varieties of Sake
*How to Select Sake
*How to Store Sake and When it Expires
*Sake Cocktails and Beyond (coming soon)
*Ways to Master Sake (coming soon)

References:
National Tax Agency of Japan: Rules and Regulations on Seishu (Website in Japanese)
The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association

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