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Made from rice, "Sake" is an alcoholic beverage peculiar to Japan. Its history is very long, dating back to the 3rd century A.D. when literature recorded the manner and custom of taking Sake. It was approximately in the 3rd century B.C. (late period of the Jomon Era) when a method of rice planting was introduced to Japan. It is believed that Sake making in Japan started around the same time.

The Japanese Liquor Law defines Sake as, "made from rice, rice koji and water using fermentation and filtration processes". This is a definition in principle and refers to the traditional type of Sake peculiar to Japan.

In 1944 during World War II, Japanese Sake manufacturers started adding alcohol in the process of Sake brewing in order to add volume to their Sake production. This addition of alcohol was to make up for the shortage of Sake, caused by the decrease in the amount of rice grown during the war. At that time, after approximately 2000 years of tradition using 100% pure rice, the production of Japanese Sake was divided into 2 different types, one without additives or the other with additives, and this polarization has continued to this day.

This Website will introduce readers to a series of stories, describing the traditional and authentic Sake-making process using 100% rice. Included are: rice used as its original ingredient, types of Sake, steps of the Sake-brewing process, and our Sake-making philosophy. It is our sincere wish that our readers will come to understand that Japanese Sake is complex and offers an alcoholic beverage with an elegant and delicate taste when it is made with utmost care.

05/21/2003 [Part 1] "Types of Sake"
07/24/2003 [Part 2] "Sweet Sake and Dry Sake"
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 Types of Sake

There are many types of Sake, and of course, there must be some system to rank them. The various types and a short description are given in the chart below.

In short, all Sake can be divided into two groups: that with added alcohol, and that made with rice only.

Amongst Sake with added alcohol, there are four groups, the first and largest of which is cheap Sake, in which lots of alcohol is added to increase yields. The other three groups of alcohol-added Sake are premium Sake (Honjozo, Ginjo-Sake and Dai-Ginjo-Sake), which have but a small amount of alcohol added. The difference between these three is how much the rice has been milled before brewing (see below).

In the other group, Sake made with only rice, there are three groups: Junmai-Sake, Junmai-Ginjo, and Junmai-Dai-Ginjo. The difference between these three is, again, how much the rice has been milled before brewing. These parallel the differences between Honjozo, Ginjo-Sake and Dai-Ginjo-Sake above.

Sake, as it is commonly known, is also sometimes referred to as Nihonshu, or even Seishu (legally). But here, we will always refer to it as Sake.

There are also, of course, rules and laws that strictly define what Sake is. Within these laws, Sake is officially known as "Seishu" and is defined as one of the following.

  1. Fermented from rice, rice-koji (the mold used to convert the starch in rice into fermentable sugars), and water, and then pressed through a mesh (to strain away the solids and yield a clear beverage).
  2. Fermented from rice, water, Sake-Kasu (the lees that remain after pressing Sake; these can still contain fermentable elements), rice-koji, and anything else accepted by law, and then pressed through a mesh.
  3. Sake to which Kasu has been added, and then passed through a mesh.

As you can see, in 1) above, the definition is very strict and clear with respect to what can be used. But in 2), the definition is a lot more vague, and not as pure. Most mass produced Sake made today has pure distilled alcohol added to it. In very cheap Sake, there is quite a lot of this alcohol added. In premium Sake, often just a little alcohol is added. However, regardless of the amount, none of this Sake falls under the category 1) above.

Also, sometimes terms like "Super Ginjo" or "Specially Brewed" appear on labels. These are purely marketing terms, and are not at all recognized by the legal system of defining and ranking Sake.

Until April of 1992, there was another system in place. At that time, Sake was designated as either 2nd Class, 1st Class, or Special Class. By default, all Sake was initially 2nd Class. However, if brewers wanted their Sake to be known as superior to most, they would submit a sample to the National Tax Office for sampling. The National Tax Office maintains a staff of professional Sake tasters for precisely this kind of thing. Why the tax office? Sake sales lead to more tax income. If the overall level of Sake is good, this means more taxes for the government. Makes sense, really.

So, if the submitted Sake was deemed good enough for a 1st Class designation, or better still as Special Class designation, brewers were allowed to put this on the label. Naturally, such Sake commanded a higher price on the market, as quality was assured by the government. Also, the tax on such Sake was higher, too.

Note, too, that such sampling was based on tasting only; and it was only through taste and smell that the quality was assessed. The type of Sake rice, and the degree to which the rice was polished --both important factors in assessing quality of Sake in today's Sake world-- were not part of the assessment back then.

To be continued.

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