February 3, 2011

Japanify: Tokutei Meishoshu (Premium Sake)

by Yoko Kumano

tokuteimeishoshu

I am excited to continue with Part Two of my sake series this week on Japanify. In my first post titled Futsushu vs. Tokutei Meishoshu, I described the difference between ordinary and premium sakes. We are now ready to define the different types of tokutei meishoshu (premium sake)–there are six types in all that each have their own requirements and characteristics. Technicalities are interesting, but I’ve found the best way start learning about sake is to find one or two that you really enjoy and just remember the names of them.

Remembering names of sake is easier said than done, especially if you can’t read Japanese and the sake is really, really good (which means you are really, really drunk and the ability to retain facts is hazy at best). Portable devices such as the iPhone come in handy at these moments–when you can drunk-text your crush with the name of the sake (killing two birds with one stone–you will have the sake name saved in your phone AND have impressed your crush).

JUNMAI SAKE

I’ve noticed that most sakes served in fancy Japanese restaurants in the U.S. are labeled as junmai. Any sake besides junmai would not be considered “real sake” in the books of nihonshu (sake) hard-asses. Junmai is pure rice wine, with no distilled alcohol. Water can be added, but no other ingredients (including other alcohols, sugars or acids) are allowed in a junmai-shu. Traditionally, the rice used for junmai must be milled to at least 70% their original size. Recently, this percentage has been relaxed, but all junmai sakes must proclaim this percentage on the label. So, junmai sake = pure rice sake with water.

Typically a junmai is a robust and more solid sake, which makes it a good choice to accompany an entrée or main course. Relative to the other types of sake, the junmai-shu can stand up to cooked or heavier foods.

HONJOZO SAKE

Some nihonshu hard-asses advise that honjozo is not “real” sake because it contains added distilled/brewers alcohol. But be aware that distilled alcohol for honjozo is not added to fortify the resulting product (as is often the case with futsushu) but rather to enhance existing qualities (i.e. aroma) or smooth out any potential kinks. Honjozo, like junmai, also has a seimaibuai (rice polishing ratio) requirement of 70%.

The history of honjozo is actually quite intriguing as its birth was a result of a rice shortage during World War II, and the U.S. continued to burn Japan into bits and most of the food in Japan was reserved for its troops. Let’s go back to Japan in 1944, when rice was super scarce and destitution was abound. The stage was set to make a sake that did not require so much rice in the production process (like junmai). A lot of people with no resources needed a drink, quickly. Because of these conditions, honjozo started out as a “cheaper alternative.” But thanks to this deviation from junmai, many sake brewers discovered distilled alcohol, in conservative amounts, enhanced desirable textures, flavors and aromatics that were absent from straight junmai. I like to think of the role of distilled alcohol in honjozo as a “finish.”

In comparison to junmai, honjozo sakes are often easier and smoother to drink and more aromatic.

GINJO SAKE

The bare-bones requirement for a ginjo is to have a seimaibuai of 60%.

Ginjo is the winner when it comes to pairing a sake with sashimi. It’s clean and light, making it a perfect accompaniment to light fish and vegetable-based appetizers.

Ginjo come in two types: junmai-ginjo and ginjo. If you’ve been paying attention, junmai is just rice sake and water, so junmai-ginjo is rice sake and water with a seimaibuai of 60%

When something is labled simply ginjo, it is technically honjozo ginjo, although the word “honjozo” is never explicitly indicated. Therefore, a ginjo is a rice sake with added brewers alcohol with a seimaibuai of 60%.

DAIGINJO SAKE

Daiginjo is like the prettier sister of ginjo. The seimaibuai minimum requirement for daiginjo is 50% which yields a sake which is more delicate, fairy-ish, light and nuanced than a ginjo. Just like the prettier sister, daiginjo is not for all occasions, she requires your full attention and is not as versatile as a ginjo.

Daiginjo sakes are known to be aromatic, so I usually enjoy them with little or no food in a wine or sake glass that accentuates the aroma.

Like ginjo, daiginjo come in two types: junmai-daiginjo and daiginjo. Junmai-daiginjo is rice sake and water with a seimaibuai of 50%. A plain daiginjo is a rice sake with added brewers alcohol with a seimaibuai of 50%.

In attempt to demystify these four classifications I’ve assigned each sake type to one of the sisters on Full House.

DJ: Junmai (assertive, solid)
Stephanie: Honjozo (agreeable, easy)
Whichever Olsen twin you like less: Ginjo (clean, light)
Whichever Olsen twin you like more: Daiginjo (delicate, fairy-ish)*

TASTE TEST

And finally, some notes from my mini-tasting session at IPPUKU. Bartender Washi (aka my husband), suggested I try a ginjo and junmai-ginjo from the same brewer–in this case Dewazakura.

ginjou2_2 DEWAZAKURA OKA
Sake type Ginjo
Seimaibuai 50%
Aroma pleasingly sweet
Taste clean, sharp, tangy
jungin_omachi DEWAZAKURA OMACHI
Sake type Junmai-ginjo
Seimaibuai 50%
Aroma faintly grassy, moldy
Taste rich, creamy, expands in the mouth and has a long sustain

Photos courtesy of Dewazakura.

LESSON SUMMARY FOR TOKUTEI MEISHOSHU

The following is a chart which breaks down the six variations of tokutei meishoshu.

Think of the three different types each for honjozo and junmai to parallel in quality. Therefore, note the position of the sake types both horizontally and vertically.

HONJOZO SAKE TYPES JUNMAI SAKE TYPES
DAIGINJO
Seimaibuai 50% or less
Aromatic, delicate, fine, highest-quality
JUNMAI DAIGINJO
Seimaibuai 50% or less
Rice sake and water only, delicate, fine, highest-quality
GINJO
Seimaibuai 60% or less
Aromatic, clean, light, higher-quality
JUNMAI GINJO
Seimaibuai 60% or less
Rice sake and water only, clean, light, higher-quality
HONJOZO
Traditionally, a seimaibuai 70% or less
Aromatic, smooth, high quality
JUNMAI
Traditionally, a seimaibuai 70% or less
Rice sake and water only, smooth, high quality

Allow me to make a nihonshu faux pas by comparing the two categories of these premium sakes, honjozo and junmai, to white wines. In the previous post, Washi said that Tedorigawa Yamahai (a junmai) is like, “Chardonnay with umami.” Let’s go with this. Junmai, as I mentioned, can be paired with heavier foods and is a more robust, “big”, solid sake that can be enjoyed on its own. Honjozo on the other hand, is much less intrusive, and lighter–like a Sauvignon Blanc. This is my go-to sake to pair with sashimi, or vegetable-based dishes.

By no means is the chart above, or my comparisons to wines, comprehensive. As I mentioned in the first part of this sake series, much like sake, beer, or any liquor, every sake has its own characteristics and nuances, regardless of category. Characteristics listed here are generalizations–more reason to continue drinking any and all types of sake you can get your hands on.

Chin Chin!

DSCN4088

*P.S. I hate the Olsen twins but I couldn’t think of a better analogy involving four sisters.

5 Comments

  • seri
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Wow, informative post. I had no idea that there was this whole category (if you can call it that) of honjozo. I’ve definitely had it since I’ve had non-junmai ginjo and daiginjo sakes, but I never knew what the labeling difference meant. Thanks!

    Sake tasting umamiventure??

  • yoko
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Yes, I am molesting the idea of a sake tasting Umamiventure AND a shochu tasting one. Stay tuned!

  • Kayoko
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    The thought of a sake + shochu molestation session at an Umamiventure is just plain awesome, and just what this community needs.

  • seri
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Nice, molest away and keep us posted!

  • Kayoko
    Posted February 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    That’s the spirit!

2 Trackbacks

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