A while ago I posted a bit about not getting too hung up on finding a specific type of sake that encompasses everything you want and just enjoying the different styles out there. This applies importantly to the hotly contested debate in the sake world over the merits of Junmai over Aruten.
To recap, Junmai means pure rice sake. Water, koji, yeast rice and no added alcohol. Aruten is short for arukooru (alcohol) tenka (addition), sake where alcohol is added before the pressing stage to dissolve some of the left over fermentables and draw out a more aromatic, lighter sake. The reason I bring this topic up is because as sake reaches a larger audience here in Australia I am seeing more and more articles, interviews with wine sommeliers, restaurateurs and suppliers spouting that junmai is the pinnacle of sake because it is the “pure” sake, giving the impression that aruten has been tarnished with its alcohol addition. Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions so here’s mine:
First of all let’s get some facts straight and some myths busted.
The bad name that aruten has with some seems to come from the story of how during WWII when rice was becoming scarce strict regulations from the government made brewers add alcohol to their sake to reduce the amount of rice required. Once the war was over and rice production returned to healthy levels brewers were free to go back to making junmai styles. Thing is, they didn’t. Adding alcohol helped increase yields thus profitability. This practice continues today in the production of futsu-shu (regular sake) where alcohol additions can triple a yield. This type of sake makes up something like 80% of all sake sold. Put simply, it’s a major part of the industry just the same way cask wine is a major part of the Australian wine industry – keeping it afloat.
But this is a bit of a red herring. No one is denying that a junmai sake is going to taste arguably better than some cheap futsu-shu made with other sugar and acid additions in grossly large amounts. But when we’re talking about tokutei meishoshu (special designation sake); honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo have small amounts of alcohol added as a means of making a more aromatic sake. It does not fortify the sake. At the end of the brewing process the sake is till cut with water to reduce the alcohol level to around 15-17% as usual. And it is small amounts. The amount of alcohol added cannot exceed 25% of the total alcohol content so this is hardly going to increase yields. So in other words, take a 720ml bottle of honjozo with an alcohol content of 16% – no more than 4% of that sake can be added alcohol. Do you really think you can taste that 4%? Also worth taking into account that as we go up in grade to ginjo and daiginjo, even less alcohol is used. You may be able to taste the stylistic differences between junmai and aruten but I don’t believe you can taste the added alcohol. As for the idea that aruten is not traditional; adding alcohol to sake to bring out flavours and aroma as a technique goes back at least 400 years. So how much history does something need to be considered traditional? Incidentally after WWII it took about 15 years for anyone to start brewing junmai again. Up until that point the term “junmai” wasn’t even used!
Then there is the apparent moral issue with adding alcohol as if it’s cheating or cutting corners. But if you think about all the techniques available to wine makers: using wood staves instead of barrels, tannin powder additions, acid adjustments etc. it seems a little contradictory to be so strict when it comes to sake brewing. By the way, I have no beef with the brewers who shun the aruten method. They brew the sake they want to brew using the techniques they want to use. It would be boring if everyone brewed the same and I love a junmai as much as the next guy.
All this is not to say you can’t be a junmai purist. But when someone claims to be a card-carrying junmai fanatic I like to think they’ve tried a few honjozo, non-junmai gingjo and non-junmai daiginjo before they came to their stance. It’s important to make up your own mind on the issue with your taste buds. Make sure you know what you’re missing out on before you let someone dictate to you what you should or shouldn’t be drinking based on their own beliefs.
Try enough sake and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of aruten that taste pretty damn good.
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.