Japanese Saké comes in a wide variety of flavor and quality. There are two main ingredients that affect its quality: the rice (more specifically, the degree to which it has been polished) and the addition (or not) of pure distilled alcohol.
80% of the saké on the market is cheap, mass-produced futsuu-shu, diluted with lots of distilled alcohol, and generally what you would expect from cheap spirits (futsuu meaning ordinary and shu meaning alcohol). Premium saké, however, has various delicious grades designed for your particular pallate and pocketbook.
Premium saké is made with rice that has been milled, or polished, to take away varying degrees of the outer layers containing amino acids and fats that have an unfavorable effect on the brewing. The more the grain is milled, the higher the proportion of the desirable starch at the core. Of course, the more it is milled, the more rice and labor required.
Another factor affecting quality is whether or not a small amount of pure distilled (brewers) alcohol is added. Adding a bit of distilled alcohol at the end of the brewing process can give a lighter, smother, drier taste and provide more fragrance. Undiluted saké has a crisp, well-textured taste.
Junmai and Genshu have no alcohol added. Yamahai, or Kimoto, have been brewed using very traditional methods that permits more yeast and bacteria to remain in the saké creating an interesting rich umami, or pleasant savory flavor. Here are the top three levels of premium saké:
Daiginjo: Rice is polished to 50% of original size, brewed using a very meticulous labor-intensive process, with a little alcohol added. Junmai Daiginjo is the same but undiluted. Japanese usually drink these premium sakés cold. Daiginjo has a hint of light fruit flavor.
Ginjo: Rice is polished to 60% of original size, brewed using a meticulous labor-intensive process, with a little alcohol added. Junmai Ginjo is the same but undiluted. Japanese usually also drink these fine
Honjozo: Rice is polished to 70% of original size, made with only rice, koji mold, yeast and water, and has a little alcohol added. Junmai Honjozo (usually referred to as just Junmai) is the same but undiluted.
Masuzaké is sake consumed from a small cup-size box made from Japanese cedar or cypress and originally used for measuring rice. It adds an extra aroma to cool or chilled saké. The addition of some salt on the corner brings out the sweetness.
Two other helpful terms are karakuchi, dry, and amakuchi, sweet. And one caution, saké is about 40 proof, so it can sneak up on you fast…
Anyone ready for a saké tasting party?
Also see: Saké: Hot or Cold?