For most of us, choosing sake is a befuddling experience: Is hot sake the Two-Buck Chuck of Japan? What’s ginjo, and is daiginjo better? I often just end up closing my eyes and pointing (well, metaphorically speaking). Here to shed some light on the fermented beverage is Hayato Hishinuma, who helped write Sake, a new 176-page tome with incredible behind-the-scenes photos and info from sake distillers, a notoriously press-shy bunch. Memorize the following and you’ll never have to furtively google a sake before ordering again.
Think of rice as a savory gobstopper: the more you polish it, the more flavor you reveal. Ergo, “the higher the polishing rate, the more expensive the sake,” says Hishinuma. Most hot sake we encounter in the U.S. is futsu-shu, or mass-produced table sake that has no minimum milling requirement.
Memorize these five terms and you’ll never go wrong
Honjozo: Your starter sake. The lowest on the sake ladder, it’s made from lightly milled rice (at least 30 percent of the grain has been polished away) and a tiny amount of distilled alcohol, which makes it more fragrant.
Ginjo: A light, fragrant, complex wine that’s best served chilled. Think of this as very solid daily-drinking sake. At least 40 percent of the rice grain has been milled away.
Daiginjo: More than 50 percent of the grain has been milled away. A flavorful step up from ginjo—watch for notes of apple, pear, vanilla, pineapple.
Tokubetsu: Made from a very unique kind of highly polished rice, it’s Japan’s Grand Cru brew and commands a cultish following. “This is not your normal, everyday sake,” says Hishinuma.
Junmai: Junmai on the label means the sake is purely made from water, rice, yeast, and koji—no alcohol added—and is considered a premium wine, says Hishinuma. Want to impress your date? Order a junmai daiginjo. Want to try a fortified sake? Look for labels that don’t include junmai.
Put your new-found knowledge to use with these bottles:
Tsukasabotan Junmai Daiginjo: “Soft, smooth, and dry. Tsukasabotan’s sake displays just ripened Asian pear and nectarine notes with savory, earthy undertones. A very controlled experience of the typically vibrant junmai daiginjo.”
Manabito Junmai Ginjo Kimoto: “Hinomaru Jozo from the Akita prefecture has a polishing rate of 55 percent. Hinomaru celebrates unique rice varieties—this sake is made from takaneminori—and has brightly limey characteristics with oily and round undertones unique to this rice variety.”
Sotenden Tokubetsu Junmai: “This sake won the International Wine Challenge 2014 gold medal. It has a light taste, with a bit of umami—it’s very comfortably savoury. Well-balanced sweetness and acidity with aromas of apple, peach, and other fruits.”
Nanbubijin Kinjirushi: ”This sake has an aroma of steamed rice, which comes from the Bijin yeast. It’s good for Atsukan (hot sake) and Nurukan (warm sake).”
Photo courtesy of Gatehouse Publishing