Most consumers’ only exposure to Sake is the hot drink you have alongside your sushi but there is a whole different side to the world of Sake. Premium Sake, served chilled since heating premium Sake destroys most aromas and flavors, contains a wonderful range of fragrances and flavors from floral, to anise, banana, and spices. So how do you differentiate poor Sake from premium Sake? Well, Sake quality is categorized by how much of each grain of rice is milled or polished away. There are many different types of rice used, each offering unique, subtle aromas and flavors but it’s much easier for the beginning Sake enthusiast to focus on the milling/polishing percentages.
Why would you want to mill/polish the rice? At the core of every rice grain are starches, the fermentable part of rice. Surrounding the starches are fats and proteins which adversely affect fermentation and generally lead to off-flavors and unattractive aromas. Essentially, the more of these unwanted fats and proteins that are polished away, the cleaner the starches are and this leads to purer and more elegant flavors and aromas.
An important term when discussing Sake is Junmai. Junmai refers to Sake made with rice that has been polished to remove at least 30% of the outer layers, leaving 70% of the original rice grain to be fermented. Junmai also indicates that no distilled alcohol has been added. Some Sake brewers add a bit of distilled alcohol to extract some additional flavors, aromas, and texture. So when you read a label that shows Junmai, you will know that the minimum polishing rate is 30% and no distilled alcohol was added.
Next we move on to the term Junmai Ginjo, these are Sakes that are made with rice that has been polished at a minimum of 40%, leaving 60% of the original rice grain to be fermented, thus creating a purer or more premium level of Sake.
Finally we have Sakes that are referred to as Junmai Daiginjo. These are the ultra premium Sakes. They require a minimum polishing rate of 50%, leaving 50% of the original rice grain to be fermented. It is not uncommon to find Daiginjo Sakes that are at the 70% polishing level, leaving behind a miniscule 30% of rice grain, creating extraordinary flavors and aromatics.
Hopefully these Sake terms will help you navigate the world of premium Sakes. Here are a few of my favorite Sakes that I highly recommend trying.
Amabuki Junmai Sake ($27.99): This Sake has a beautiful rose color which comes from the use of an ancient black rice varietal. All of the Sakes from this producer use local flower yeasts that produce unique and unequaled flavors and aromas. Slightly sweet and fruity, touch of spice and lots of cream and anise flavors.
Dassai ‘50’ Junmai Daiginjo ($27.99): A Beltramo’s staff favorite, made from rice milled down to 50%. Clean, soft, and elegant flavors of melon, apricot, cream, and a hint of minerality. A premium Sake that is not to be missed!
Chokaisan Junami Daiginjo ($44.99): Brewed with the purest waters of Mt. Chokai and with the use of flower yeasts, producing perfumed pear and floral fragrances along with balanced flavors of melon, banana, spice and cream. A repeat gold medal winner at the International Sake Challenge and a gold medal winner in the Sake category at the International Wine Challenge.
Will S., Beltramo’s Assistant Manger