How sake is categorized

by Fiona Yoshitake
Japan Travel

Sake is classified according to the amount of the rice grain that has been polished away - the rice polishing ratio.

Sake with a lower ratio (more of the grain has been polished away) is considered more premium and tends to be more expensive. This is not necessarily because it is objectively better, but because more rice is needed to make the same amount of sake when the rice is polished to a higher degree. 

Around 70% of the sake market is classified as Futsushu, or table sake. Futsushu actually has no minimum milling requirement, and is therefore popular for its fair value and easy drinking. 

The remaining 30% of the market is composed of premium sake, Tokutei Meisoshu, which is tightly regulated by the government. Premium sake is split into a further six categories, based on milling ratio and whether or not brewers’ alcohol has been added. 

Premium sake that has no added brewers’ alcohol is known as Junmai sake. They typically have more acidity and umami than Ginjo sake styles, which have added brewers’ alcohol. 

Initially, the various Japanese terms can be confusing. If you are curious to learn more about the proper classifications, a good guide can be found here. 

Otherwise, below is a recap of the key concepts you need to remember. 

 

Glossary

•Rice polishing ratio: also known as the Milling Rate. Sake is made from rice that has been polished of its husk and outer layers. The lower the polishing ratio, the more premium the sake.

•Brewers’ Alcohol: pure distilled alcohol, added to adjust the flavor of the sake and not as a fortification.

•Futsushu: mainstream sake that is generally good value, which comprises 70% of the sake market in Japan

•Tokutei Meisoshu: premium sake that is tightly regulated by the government for ingredients and polishing rate. It comprises around 30% of the Japanese sake market.

•Junmai sake: premium sake that has not had brewers’ alcohol added.

•Ginjo sake: premium sake that has had brewers’ alcohol added.

 

Sake Etiquette

Are there rules for enjoying sake?

Overview

Japan is a nation in which courtesy is greatly valued. To make sure that you have a fantastic sake drinking experience with your friends, here are some tips and hints on how to serve and receive sake. 

Do's

1. Do serve others: Treat it as your duty to ensure that your companion's cup never runs dry. When their cup becomes less than a third full, this is the right time to refill. If you should like a refill yourself, instead of refilling your own glass you should refill your companion's, who will then reciprocate. Sake is a social drink and this quirk of serving particularly enforces a close sense of friendship.

2. Do pour sake with two hands: When pouring out sake from the bottle or tokkuri, make sure to use both hands. This is different from wine, wherein many restaurants you may see your sommelier serving you one handed (which indeed looks very graceful, but would be considered disrespectful when it comes to sake). When serving sake, hold the bottle with your right hand on top, supporting the bottom with your left hand. Make sure not to place your right hand beneath, which is a sign of disrespect.

3. Do receive sake with two hands: Hold the sake cup in one hand, supporting its bottom with the other. Before your companion refills your cup, take a small sip first. Take another small sip after you have been served, before placing your cup on the table. Of course, once you have received your refill don't forget to return the courtesy!

Dont's

1. Don't peek into the tokkuri: Looking into the vessel to check how much sake is left is considered very poor manners, and looks pretty impolite.

2. Don't blend the contents of different tokkuri: Avoid this even if they all contain the same sake. Aside from reasons of etiquette, there is the practical reason that they will be at different temperatures and blending them would therefore affect the taste and aroma.

3. Don't drink straight from the tokkuri: Even if you are the only drinker, tokkuri are strictly designed for pouring.

One you have familiarized yourself with these tips, you're all set to have a memorable night of camaraderie with your sake drinking companions. Kampai!

 

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