Sake Overview

What is Sake?

Sake, also known as "Washu" (和酒, lit. Japanese alcohol) in Japanese, is made mainly from rice, koji (rice malt), and water, and is called so because it is brewed in a uniquely Japanese way.

Sake has many different names, including "sasa" (ささ) from ancient Japanese, "hannyatou" (般若湯) from the obscure language of Buddhist monks, "Kichigaimizu" (気違い水, lit. water of madness) from the Edo period, and "ponshu" from the modern era.

Sake is usually 15-16% alcohol by volume, which is much higher than most other types of alcohol, but recently sake is being developed and marketed with alcohol content in the 6-8% range to make it easier for women and young adults to enjoy.

The History of Sake in relation to Rice Cultivation

Sake is made up of rice, koji and water, and its history dates back to the inception of rice farming in Japan.
Rice cultivation is generally believed to have been introduced to Japan more than 2,000 years ago in the Yayoi period, and it is speculated that the history of sake may have begun around the same time period.
Sake has many origins, but the Osumi Province Fudoki (ancient report on provincial culture, geography, and oral tradition) describes sake made from rice, and it is believed that this is the oldest sake in Japan.

In the Yayoi period, rice cultivation spread throughout Japan and brewing techniques were developed, which led to the use of koji (rice malt) in the Nara period (710-794) and the development of sake brewing techniques.

Classifications of Sake

1. Futsu-shu
Sake with no specific name is called Futsu-shu. This is what the majority of available sake is classified as.
Sake is made from rice, koji and water, with sake lees and other ingredients specified by law.
The amount of ingredients that can be used as auxiliary ingredients must not exceed the weight of the rice and koji.

2. Tokutei Meisho-shu
Sake with a specific name on it is called "Tokutei Meisho-shu."
If the National Tax Agency states that the ingredients and production method meet certain criteria, the sake can be labeled with a specific name on the container or packaging.
The rice must be made from brown rice that has been graded at grade 3 or higher by the Agricultural Products Inspection Act, or white rice that has been polished from brown rice that is equivalent to grade 3 or higher, and the ratio of koji to white rice weight must be at least 15%.
Sake is classified as honjozo-shu, junmai-shu, or ginjo-shu according to the ingredients and polished rice ratio.

3. Honjozo-shu
The term honjozo-shu is used for sake made from white rice, koji, brewer's alcohol or water with a milled rice content of 70% or less, and is used to describe sake with a good aroma and color.
The amount of brewer's alcohol is limited to 120 liters per ton of white rice used.
Also, if a pure brewed sake has a "particularly good" aroma and color, and if this is stated on the container or packaging of the brewed sake with the ingredients, production method, and other objective information, it is designated as a "special honjozo-shu."

4. Junmai-shu
Sake with a good aroma and colour is called Junmai-shu if it is made only from white rice, koji, and water.
The white rice is the same as any other type of tokutei meisho-shu (grade 3 or higher brown rice), and the total weight of the koji must be at least 15% of the total weight of the white rice.
Like Honjozo-shu, if the flavor and color are "particularly good" and the container or packaging of the sake clearly states the ingredients used, the method of production, and other relevant information, it is labeled as "special Junmai-shu."

5. Ginjo-shu
Ginjo-shu refers to sake made from white rice, koji and water or brewed alcohol with less than 60% rice polish. It is made through a process called ginjo-zukuri.
Ginjo-shu is made by fermenting at low temperatures for a long period of time, resulting in a gorgeous aroma called "ginjoka."
Ginjo-shu is made from rice, koji, and water without the addition of brewer's alcohol, and is known as Junmai Ginjo-shu.
It has a milder aroma and taste than ginjo-shu to which brewer's alcohol has been added.
Ginjo-shu is called Daiginjo-shu if it is made from white rice from which at least 50% of the outer layer has been removed and if it has a particularly good aroma and color.
It is characterized by a more thorough low-temperature preparation than ginjo-shu and by the addition of a small amount of brewing alcohol.
If no brewing alcohol is added, the name Junmai Daiginjo-shu is used.
Most sake has a fruity and gorgeous aroma and a light, smooth taste, but there are also some with a full-bodied taste, which reflects the individuality of the brewery.

A Few Sake Terms You Should Know

1. Gen-shu (原酒)
This refers to sei-shu (refined sake) that has not been diluted after pressing. (excluding those with less than 1% alcohol by volume).

2. Nama-zake (生酒)
Sake that has never been heated or pasteurized.
Since the quality of the sake is likely to deteriorate, it must be frozen.

3. Hiyaoroshi (ひやおろし)
After being brewed in winter, this sake is stored and matured in a cool brewery during the spring and summer months, and then bottled and shipped in the fall when the temperature drops. It is characterized by the fact that it is not heat treated.

2020 National Ranking of Japanese Sake Brands

Sake is produced all over Japan, with a wide range of flavors and aromas, both sweet and dry, with each region having its own unique flavor.
The following is a ranking of sake brands produced by the more than 1,500 breweries in the country.

No. 1 Juyondai
This sake represents the mellow and delicious taste of modern sake.
Juyondai is mainly consumed with sashimi, tempura, and other Japanese dishes.

No. 2 Hanaabi (花陽浴)
Ginjo-shu is a handcrafted sake considered to be the next generation of Japanese sake.
Its fruity aroma and sweetness make it an enjoyable sake for first timers.
It is mainly paired with tsukemono and miso dishes.

No. 3 Jikon (而今)
This sake has become popular thanks to the overwhelming support of Tokyo and Osaka. It is characterized by a very clear and fruity flavor and a sweet taste.
It goes so well with Italian cuisine that some people drink Jikon instead of wine.

No. 4 Shinshu Kirei (信州亀齢)
This sake has a long history, having been created in 1665.
It is said to go well with strongly flavored meat dishes because of its dry and refreshing taste.

No. 5 Koei Giku (光栄菊)
This sake is produced by the new brewery that took over the mission of the Koei-giku brewery, which was founded in 1871 and closed its doors in 2006.
It is famous for its strong sweetness and outstanding flavor, and is easy to drink even for those new to sake.

No. 6 "No.6"
As the brewery where No. 6 yeast originated, this line of nama-zake is designed to maximize its appeal.
Stored in a warehouse at -5 degrees Celsius or less enables this sake to be shipped in a fresh state, despite the tendency of sake to deteriorate in quality.
It is characterized by having a sweetness reminiscent of white wine and a slight fizzing sensation. There are three different flavors: X-type, S-type, and Regular, so we recommend trying all three types to compare them.

No. 7 Hanamura (花邑)
This sake is brewed with "Chikara mizu," a famous water of the Kurikoma Mountain Range, in four breweries, all of which are nationally designated as tangible cultural properties.
Its gentle, quiet aroma and fresh, vibrant flavor captivates drinkers.

No. 8 Hinotori (陽乃鳥)
This sake, whose origins date back to the Heian period, is a noble sake made by replacing part of the brewing water with sake.
Since it is made with Junmai-shu without any brewer's alcohol added, it has an extremely refreshing aroma and a modern taste.

No. 9 Kawanakajima Genbu (川中島 幻舞)
Mariko Chino, the brewer's only daughter, is the master brewer and has worked tirelessly to perfect this sake.
Its elegant aroma and refreshing taste are very popular, and it has won various awards, including a gold medal in the Annual Japan Sake Awards.

No. 10 Sogga Père et Fils (ソガペールエフィス)
The Ofuse Winery in Nagano, that generally focuses on wine, produces a very small amount of this sake only during winter.
It is made using a traditional style of sake brewing without any yeast, and has a rich taste with just the right amount of acidity, viscosity, and sweetness, which sets it apart from other sake.

Popular Sake in Japan

Hopefully this page has given you some basic knowledge about sake and sake rankings in Japan.

With the widespread use of the Internet, more and more sake breweries are taking advantage of online ordering and you can now buy sake from world-famous sites like Amazon.
Of course, many of the sake products we've introduced here can be ordered online, so be sure to check them out if you're interested!