Perceived Stigma of Non-Junmai
Sake and Why It is Bunk
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
October 1, 2006
INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
– Perceived Stigma of Non-Junmai Sake (and why it is bunk)
– Good Sake to Look For
– Sake Events: 2007 Sake Pro Course & more
– New Sake Pub Book Available
Happy Sake Day
Happy Sake Day to all Sake World readers! October 1 was Nihonshu-no-hi, or Sake Day. For more on the why and the significance of this admittedly dubious designation, see:
The Potentially Perceived Stigma
of Non-Junmai Sake (and why it is bunk)
As more and more sake becomes available outside of Japan, it is becoming increasingly crucial that everyone shares a basic understanding of the different types and grades, including what is important about the half-dozen or so basic grades, and what is – in truth – not so important about them. Conversely worded, it is critical that fundamental *mis*understandings about sake grades and types are not unnecessarily and inappropriately propagated. One such key issue that is both vague and initially a tad hard to understand, as well as potentially contentious since many folks have somewhat strong opinions on it, is the use of distilled alcohol in the sake brewing process. In other words, the difference between junmai- types and non-junmai- types.
First, a bit of history. Until about 50 years ago, all sake was made from rice and rice alone, at least in terms of the fermentable raw materials. Nothing else was used to make the alcohol in sake. But being wartime, there were obvious rice shortages, and the government did something that was very intelligent given the circumstances of the time: they forced brewers by law to cut their product with copious amounts of alcohol distilled from whatevuh (molasses, sugar cane, grains, etc.). What this did was allow the sake industry to barely survive, and eke out an existence until the war ended, yet ensured that rice was not squandered either.
It also allowed brewers to make sake much more cheaply, therefore effectively eliminating the black market for “sake”, which was full of bad products made with the wrong kind of alcohol, stuff that made people go blind. So for the times and conditions, it was a good and proper thing.
After the war, however, when things returned to normal, rice stocks too were replenished. The laws on adding alcohol were repealed; however, brewers were not forced to stop adding alcohol to the brews, there were just no longer required to do it.
But as far as the brewing industry was concerned, it was so much cheaper to brew sake this way (remember, the era of ginjo with its highly milled rice had not even come close to arriving), and the perceived truth was that the average citizen just wanted, for the most part, a buzz. So no one brewed rice-only sake until about 1964, when two breweries (Tama no Hikari of Kyoto and Chiyo no Sono of Kumamoto) simultaneously began to brew rice-only sake again. At that time, it didn’t even have a name, but eventually it became known as junmai-shu, or “pure rice sake.” Slowly, the trend caught on, and now all brewers make it (with perhaps a couple of exceptions).
Still, remember that about 85 percent of all sake out there is “futsuu-shu,” or “normal sake,” or perhaps even referable as “table sake.” And all of this has lots of alcohol added to it for purely economic reasons. So although this junmai sake thing began again 40 years ago, the lion’s share of the market is still made the cheaper way.
However – and this is important – a lot of that sake is perfectly fine, wonderfully enjoyable, and quite easy to drink. Admittedly, premium it ain’t, but eminently drinkable it is. Much of it, anyway. But the point is, the alcohol added to this sake is done so for purely economic reasons.
Moving up into the realm of premium sake, a mere 15 percent of all sake made, we have yin-and-yang-like counterparts on three different levels, the difference in those levels being the degree to which the rice was milled. And, on any one of these three given levels, the difference between the yin and the yang is that the yin has had a bit of alcohol added to it, and the yang is made with rice as the only source of alcohol.
(I am well aware that I am massively mixing my metaphors, cultures, and philosophies, and am dangerously close to being distracting. But I am trying to make this easy to visualize while reading text alone; please bear with me.)
For example, the very top level of sake is occupied by two types, junmai daiginjo and daiginjo, with the difference being junmai daiginjo is made with rice alone, while daiginjo is made using a tad of distilled alcohol. Cranking it down a notch, the second level from the top is junmai ginjo and ginjo, with the difference being junmai ginjo is made with rice alone, while ginjo is made using a tad of distilled alcohol. And the third of these three levels hosts two types as well, junmai-shu and honjozo, with the difference being junmai-shu is made with rice alone, while honjozo is made using a tad of distilled alcohol.
While most readers are surely familiar with these six types of premium sake, it may be helpful at this juncture to check out this chart: http://www.sake-world.com/html/types-of-sake.html
The point here, though, is that in this realm of premium sake, when distilled alcohol is used in the brewing process, it is done so NOT for economic reasons, but for very good, sound technical reasons. This is the heart of what I want to communicate here.
And what might one of those sound technical reasons be? Well, over the decades, brewers learned that many of the flavorful and aromatic compounds in a fermenting batch of sake are soluble in alcohol. So they learned a little trick, kind of like a brewer’s crowbar: when fermentation completes itself, they add a little bit of pure distilled alcohol to the tank, which loosens these flavorful and aromatic compounds, allowing the brewer to more easily extract the goodies from the rice. That, folks, is the long and short of it.
Note, though, that such sake is *not* fortified, since the brewers later add water to bring the overall alcohol content back down to the 15-16 percent range. And note again that the amount of alcohol they can add is strictly limited by law at these premium levels (unlike at table sake levels). And further note, simply out of interest if you will, that if a brewer plans to add alcohol to a sake, (s)he must plan accordingly from the start, since when that alcohol is added, it will dry the bejeezus out of the flavor, and thin out the umami (subtle richness) of it as well. So they need to bolster some things early on in the game if they plan to dose the batch later.
As alluded to above, there are those folks who believe that only the junmai family (i.e. junmai-shu junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo) are *real* sake, and that the non-junmai types (i.e. honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo) are bastardizations of the craft supported by smoothly presented rationalizations. They insist that the original way to brew sake used only rice, and that adding alcohol was not originally a part of sake brewing.
In fact, this too is unmitigated balderdash, as records from the 1600s through to the late 1800s show that from time to time distilled alcohol was indeed added to some sake. It was known then as “kashira-jochu,” or “pillar shochu,” (shochu being a distilled beverage made from centuries back in Japan). Such additions apparently supported weaker sake like a good strong pillar of strength, improving it all around. But in the Meiji-era (late 19th century) sake laws, this technique was written out of the books. So there was, after all, a precedent for adding alcohol to sake.
So, yes, there are quite a few troops out there, both in the ranks of consumers and amongst brewers themselves, that are fairly anti- non-junmai. Surely people have the right to have preferences, and to be purists as well. Far be it from me to stand in the way of that. But for the record, I am not of this mindset when it comes to sake.
Why not? Because in the end, sake is all about enjoyment, especially of flavors and aromas. And there are literally countless examples of outstandingly enjoyable flavor and aroma laden sake in the non-junmai classifications. Tons of ‘em. Gads and gads. Also, I am quite sure that no one can always tell the difference; i.e. no one can taste a sake blindly and tell you if alcohol has been used or not, at least not in the higher grades of sake, and not 100 percent of the time.
Can it be done sometimes? Sure. In fact, often it is pretty easy, down around honjozo levels. Can it be done often? By some folks, yes; it is really just a matter of tasting experience. But is there anyone who can always know? With any sake, at any level? Nah. Not a soul, sez I. And I stand by that.
So if it is not always possible to tell the difference, then there is no right to gripe. Having said that, principle and philosophy are important too, and folks have a right to have preferences. But for most of us, just out to enjoy our sake, junmai types are not intrinsically better than non-junmai styles, methinks.
And, in fact, there are some other advantages to having used a little bit of alcohol in the brewing process: stability and longer shelf life, for example. And, in truth, for a given rice and milling rate, adding a bit of alcohol can be said to lead to a better product, all things considered. Perhaps, anyway.
Again, there are those that would discount these points too, saying the differences are not that pronounced, nor really bona fide problems. And who knows; they may be right in the final analysis. What is most important, though, is that we consumers understand the truth about differences in the types, don’t buy anyone else’s hype, and (arguably) let enjoyment of sake be the guiding principle.
A final note: In the US (only), non-junmai sake is taxed at a higher rate, so that there are many more junmai types available than non-junmai types. But this is gradually changing, so the above diatribe will become more and more relevant.
Good Sake to Look For
The below sake are all exported to the US and other countries.
** Miyozakura (Gifu Prefecture). Junmai-shu. Most of the sake from this well-established, mid-sized brewery located along the Naka-sendo, the road upon which nobles and samurai would travel on the way from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo of olde), is crisp, clean and light. But perhaps this junmai-shu is more characterized by restrained, fine-grained flavors and a wonderfully characteristic grainy feel, almost seductively ticklish. Very enjoyable at just ever-so-slightly chilled temperatures, and works well with a wide range of food.
** Tenzan “Hotarugawa”(Saga Prefecture). Junmai Daiginjo. Tenzan sake, and that includes this lovely top-grade manifestation Hotarugawa, are generally thick, broad and textured, yet clean throughout. Apples and chestnuts suffuse the aromas, which lead into a drier flavor than one would expect, soft and alluring, and bolstered by an engaging level of acidity. Be wary of overchilling this sake, as that would stifle its most enjoyable aspects. Hotarugawa means “Firefly River,” and refers to the river flowing in front of the brewery.
** Beni Mansaku (Akita Prefecture). Junmai Ginjo. Like much sake of Akita and other north-eastern regions, there is a lot of flavor squeezed into a tight package here, with a lovely complexity being the result. A good blend of fruity touches interspersed with rice-like flavors and aromas are packed together, buoyed by an apple-like fruity aroma, that is subtle in its manifestation. Beni Mansaku means “Red flower in full bloom.”
Sake Events and Announcements
** “Sake Samurai” Event at Takara, October 22. On the evening of Sunday, October 22, 2006, from 5pm to 8pm, there will be a sake event at the pub Takara in Yurakucho. The guest lecturer for the evening will be Mr. Beau Timken, founder and owner of the only sake-only retailer in the US, True Sake of San Francisco. Beau, along with myself, was one of the recipients of the first Sake Samurai award. What is a Sake Samurai, and what is the significance of the award? You will need to attend this evening’s event to find out. The cost for the evening is 7000 yen, and includes nine (count ‘em, 9!) sake and dinner. What an outstanding way to spend a Sunday evening! For more information and to make reservations, contact John Gauntner at http://sake-world.com/html/email.html.
** Sake Seminar at Takara, Saturday, November 4, 2006. On the evening of Saturday, September 4, from 6:00 pm until 9:00 pm, I will hold another sake seminar at Takara. The topic will be sake regionality, and the materials for the evening will include the first time information on the several prefectures that have created rules for appellations will be collated and presented in English. If you would like to know how sake compares with wine in the field of regionality, and just what is binding and what is not, don’t miss this seminar. The cost for the evening, with a lecture, those first-of-their-kind materials, dinner and half a dozen sake is \7000. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at http://sake-world.com/html/email.html.
** Announcing the Fourth Annual Sake Professional Course. January 22 to 26, 2007, in Tokyo, with a visit to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. The Sake Professional Course is a five-day intensive immersion into sake and the sake world, replete with plenty of classroom instruction followed by relevant tasting, four sakagura (brewery) visits. Naturally, the evenings will be filled with more merry tasting along with great local cuisine. While the course is focused on those that plan to use the information professionally, anyone is of course welcome to attend. My objective is that, after completing the course and taking the time to absorb the material, no one out there will be able to tell you anything about sake that you do not already know. In this, I have great confidence. It will be thorough. The tasting sessions that follow each classroom session ensure that participants will understand the material on a deeper and more permanent level than would be the case from book-study alone. For more details, and some testimonials (more to be posted soon), see:
New Sake Pub Book Available
Guantner’s most recent book, the “Tokyo Sake Pub Guide,” is now available directly from his web site. Please visit:
“NIHONSHU NO UMAI OTONA NO IZAKAYA” (Sake Pubs with Good Sake for Grown-ups), or the “Tokyo Sake Pub Guide,” Written by myself (the English bits) and Akihiro Yorimitsu (the Japanese parts), introduces in depth 40 sake pubs all over Tokyo. All 40 pubs were selected by myself based on various parameters, including food, reasonable prices, the sake list (of course), and that all-important ambiance. Convenience of access was also taken into consideration. The selection runs the gamut from old and traditional to modern and funky, but with a bit of a lean toward the former. If you visit Tokyo even once in a while and enjoy sake, this little handbook will prove indispensable. Most of the text is in Japanese, as the book is geared toward Japanese people wanting to take overseas customers and guests out drinking sake. However, there is enough English in it to ensure those that do not read Japanese can find and enjoy all 40 pubs. The book is chock-full of revealing photos that speak a thousand words each, showing the nature and feel of each place introduced. It also includes an English chapter on what is what in Japanese sake pubs, in terms of both food and sake. If you regularly visit Tokyo or plan to, and have an interest in sake, this is the guide for you.
To order, send a check or money order for US $15.00 or JPY1000 to:
1 – 4 – 4 Jomyoji, Kamakura-shi
Include your name and address, and it will ship directly to you, from me, with an author’s signature and date. Make your next trip to Tokyo that much better.