This is not going to be a complete sake buying or ordering guide. At least not yet. Nor is this post meant to make you a sake professional, so forgive me if I skip details to keep you focused on the essential information as well as not covering all the sake ground for the same reason. I will gradually build up on the knowledge that I provide, so if you want to know more about sake sign up for the newsletter and you will get the updates delivered to your inbox automatically.
For now let’s focus on Ginjo. As you can read here this is the one word that you should remember when it comes to sake. Why is that? Because by looking at a sake label most people cannot easily tell if it is any good? Ultimately there is no right answer to that question, as whether or not it is any good depends in the end on your taste. But there are hints you can use to narrow it down and increase the chance of ending up with a bottle you like. And the first one is being able to identify the word ‘GINJO’ on the label.
Sake comes in different grades and among them are eight grades that are considered premium sake, for which special regulations (e.g. milling rate) apply. The top four of those premiums all have the word Ginjo in their grade. So if you can identify the word Ginjo on a label of sake you know that you have at least a decent bottle in your hands. Does that mean that all the other sake is not good or not as good? Certainly not! There is wonderful stuff out there that is not labeled to be one of the top four grades, but it is a little harder to identify.
So what is the difference in the ginjo’s above?
The ones at the top (Daiginjo) have (most of the times) more of the rice milled away than the ones at the bottom. The ones on the left (Junmai-type) have no alcohol added as an ingredient but the ones on the right do.
- For sake the outer parts of the rice grain are usually being milled away. This is called semei buai and means the amount of rice that is left after the milling. Legally the minimum semei buai for Ginjo is 60% and for Daiginjo 50%. But those numbers are just the minimum requirements. It is perfectly legal and common practice to sell a Ginjo with a semai buai of 50% or less.
Ginjo and even more so Daiginjo are brewed in a very labor intensive way and fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. The resulting flavor is more complex and delicate than the one of non-ginjo-sake, and you will often (not always though) find it to be more fruity and flowery in fragrance and flavor.
- Often brewer’s alcohol is added to the sake just before it is being pressed. This is not primarily done to stabilize the sake and increase shelf life. More importantly though this is done to extract more aromas and flavors that would otherwise not be able to delight your palate. So adding a small amount of alcohol does not mean the sake is better or worse. It is just a different method of brewing sake.
Junmai-types are usually a little more full and heavy in flavor than the premium sake that have alcohol added to them. Also the acidity is often slightly higher as well. Generally speaking it is more likely to be a good choice for matching with food, as it tends to have a presence that makes it stand up better to stronger aromas than lighter sake would.
So as a s first step in reading sake labels remember the Kanji below. When you can identify those as a first step you most likely will also be able to identify them when they are written in beautiful but hard to read calligraphy. This plus the general knowledge of how many characters you are looking for will get you started.
– 吟 the ‘gin’-part of Ginjo
– 大 吟 Daiginjo to recognize a bottle from the top oft the sake world (Dai means big or important)
– 純 米 Junmai, which means ‚pure rice’ and indicates that the alcohol comes from fermenting rice and rice alone.