So we know all the different grades of premium (tokutei meishoushu) sake are essentially based around their seimaibuai (rice milling rate), meaning the more of the outer layers of rice that gets milled away the higher the grade of sake. Just to be sure, the grades are:
Ginjo/Junmai Ginjo: 60%
Daiginjo/ Junmai Daiginjo: 50%
A couple of things to keep in mind – Although the milling rate for honjozo is 70% it can be any rate for junmai as long as they print it on the label. And remember the figure we are looking at here is the percentage of rice remaining after polishing ie. 70% of the grain of rice is left after milling for a honjozo.
Sitting at the top of the heap is Daiginjo. The oft lauded pride and joy of any sake brewery. Daiginjo usually get the most hands on treatment out of all the sake in a breweries’ portfolio. It is the one the head brewer (toji) watches over like a concerned parent from beginning to end without relinquishing responsibility to anyone else on the brewing team. It is the grade that all the breweries send in for the annual New Sake Competition (zenkoku shinshu kanpyoukai) as the pinnacle of their skill. It’s also the grade of sake that friends always get for me as a souvenir (shouldn’t complain though). Daiginjo are usually aromatic, elegant, soft and complex. Good ones can often manage to be soft and understated while still being packed with flavour and complexity.
But there’s more to life than daiginjo. Sure they’re considered the best but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for other grades. On the contrary, lately I find myself drinking less and less daiginjo and more of the lower grades. Why? Because they’re much more approachable with everyday foods and appropriate for social drinking.
While a daiginjo can be a great match for high-grade sashimi or other light fish dishes, I don’t find myself eating that stuff very often, sadly. A meal of soul-food like yakitori, tempura or more rustic dishes calls for something with some down to earth character and this is where honjozo and junmai can fit in nicely. But lets take it up a notch.
You may or may not have seen the word Tokubetsu (特別) tagged on to a label of honjozo or junmai sake. What’s that all about? Tokubetsu means special. In the case of sake, a tokubetsu honjozo or tokubetsu junmai is a sake where they have done a little something special such as used a higher milled rice or higher grade of rice or a different yeast strain to what their usual honjozo or junmai uses. It could be anything, basically, it’s up to the Toji as to what makes it tokubetsu. Lately these are the sake that have been floatin my boat. Reason being, they are great for drinkin! They are interesting enough to pontificate over if that’s your thing but they don’t distract if you’re just sipping on some sake watching the cricket (I’m really not sure if anyone does that) nibbling on o-kaki or some tasty snacks.
The other thing they are great for is when you find yourself in a Japanese restaurant ordering a whole bunch of different dishes to share and you’re not sure what sake to go with it all. In such situations where conversation and food are the hero of the evening, a simple junmai or honjozo (tokubetsu if they have one) is a great move. So there’s no need to feel like a cheap-skate or be swayed by the know-it-all at the table declaring daiginjo is the best, honjozo and good ol’ junmai are nothing to be looked down upon.
There’s tons out there but if you’re out and about, keep an eye out for…
Kikusui Honjozo Karakuchi (dry) from Niigata (seimaibuai 70%) has a refreshingly light aromatic nose. Slightly floral with hints of melon. Soft on the palate with a definite dry finish. Nice acidity. Soft but not overly feminine. A great honjozo that works wonderfully chilled. An excellent everyday sake. Honestly can’t say I’ve seen it about in restaurants but I know some of Kikusui’s range is here.
Yukino Matsushima Tokubetsu Junmai from Miyagi (seimaibuai 60%) is a good all-rounder. Aromas of vanilla and rice blend with nutty banana. Slight and clean on the palate but with a nice peppery spice at the back. Works nicely slightly warmed too. Available in some Japanese restaurants. Went very well with tonight’s tofu croquettes.