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.