Junmai: Pure rice sake, which means that no distilled brewers alcohol is added after the brewing process; this is the first grade of premium sake.
Honjozo: Shares the space as the first grade of premium sake, but has brewer’s alcohol added. This is the table wine of the sake world. Like table wine there are great ones and some are lackluster. Honjozo has a much longer shelf life once open and is often very nice when gently warmed. While Junmai sake tends to be richer and higher in acidity, Honjozo tends to be lighter and often has a gentle sweetness.
Ginjo: Means a minimum of 40% polishing to the rice before the brewing process. You see the word “Ginjo” and you know you are tasting the love, labor, and craft of the master brewer. Fruity and flowery aromas are typical, as is a very refined, delicate nature. Best served chilled, some sakes with richer flavor profiles come alive when gently warmed.
Dai Ginjo: Means at least 50% polishing; “Dai” means “big” so just think of it as a Big Ginjo. This is the pinnacle of the master brewer's craft and definitely the most accessible sake out there – or at least the most popular amongst Americans. Smooth, aromatic, and often fruity, it’s great as an aperitif. The aromas and wonderful flavors are great for stimulating the appetite.
There is a lot of grey between the grades of sake; the fun is trying them all and seeing which ones you like the best.
Yamahai & Kimoto:
Often seen on the menu or bottle it refers to a traditional yeast starter method that produces gamey, earthy, woodsy flavors and a beautiful acidity. These sakes are often great when warmed.
Like wine, sake is diverse in flavor profile from region to region.
Climate, local cuisine, master brewer's guild, and water quality all play a role in the flavor of sake.
Rule of thumb: Sake starting in the Northeast is a clean and compact expression of the rice. As you move southwest, the sake opens up and becomes richer, more complex, and more expansive on the palate.
Like the rest of the modern world many of these regional lines are blurring, but enough still holds true to make some generalizations.
Five regional names to look for:
Niigata Prefecture: Located in the Japanese Alps, Niigata has the best rice in Japan and beautiful water. This lends it to a very popular style of sake referred to as "kire," which means both clean and beautiful in Japanese and perfectly describes the sake from this region. Dry and light, a sake that is there one second and quickly disappears from the palate.
Shizuoka Prefecture: Among my best sellers despite not being traditionally famous for sake production, these sakes have a relatively low acidity, which gives them a velvety texture, great aromas, and an easy drinking nature. Almost always a home-run for first-time sake drinkers.
Nada: This ward in Kobe city in Hyogo prefecture is the largest brewing center in Japan. Traditionally referred to as "masculine" sake, they have a great, solid structure and are often what people have in mind when thinking of a traditional or classic style of sake.
Fusshiimi: This ward in Kyoto City is the second-largest brewing center in Japan. Kyoto conjures up the images of shrines and history; it’s the cultural heart of Japan. This refinement comes through in the crafting of sake. This sake is soft, refined, and sometimes slightly sweet, and is often referred to as “feminine” sake.
Kochi: If you want a dry sake, look no further. Sakes from this prefecture of Japan are renowned for being “kara kuchi” - dry. The sakes also have a great earthy richness and depth that is seen throughout the Southwest. Because of there dryness, it is very easy to consume Kochi sakes in large quantities. This is quite evident locally: Kochi Prefecture has the highest per-capita sake consumption in Japan.
Each prefecture, city, and hamlet in Japan has its own unique quality. These five are diverse and easy enough to remember to make you sound like an expert when ordering.
When ordering sake by the glass or carafe, check with the server as to how long the bottle has been open. With Junmai and Honjozo three or four days should be the max. With Ginjo and Dai Ginjo allow only one or two days. The more complex and aromatic sakes quickly lose their nose and nuance on the palate. This assumes they are all refrigerated properly.
Wooden boxes: The “masu” is a Japanese cypress box traditionally used for measuring grain. This is fine for a simple Honjozo or a not-very-aromatic Junmai, but the nose from the wood ends up masking the beauty and nuance of most premium sake. The aromas from the wood are great in smoothing out cheaper harsher sakes.
Stemware: Traditional earthen cups are fine, as are shot glasses. My personal preference is a nice port glass or young white wine glass. With stemware you really get to experience the nose and even the visual aspects are more pleasant. Psychologically I also think stemware elevates the status of premium sake to a place next to fine wine, where it should be. The Riedel Dai Ginjo glasses are great, if too pricey for us to serve 200 sake drinking guests each night.