Sake 101

illustration by MARK STIVERS

For most people, sake is still kind of a mystery. Yet sake, like wine or beer, has its own nuances, appearances and flavors that make each one unique. Still, how do you know by the label which sakes are the premium sakes?

The common words that differentiate sake from lowest to highest quality are futsu, honjozo, junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo. Each of these rate how polished the rice was before fermentation. What was polished off were the proteins and oils leaving behind the core starch.

Futsu is table sake; the rice isn’t milled at all. Honjozo is just one step up from Futsu. Both use distilled alcohol to rush production. These are served hot in wooden or ceramic cups to mask flavor.

The last three are premium sakes and make up only a small amount of the market. The higher you go the more care was put into the sake resulting in fuller flavors. In these the only ingredients used are water, rice, yeast, and koji (a fermenting mold). These sakes should always be served cold in a wine glass so the sake can breathe.