Japanese culinary culture revolves around rice. Not only will you find rice belying the finest fresh fish, curries, or molded into noodles, crunchy snacks, and breakfast porridge, but you will also find rice at the foundation of Japan’s most well-known spirit.
Sake is a rice wine and the pride and joy of Japan’s drinking culture. Sake production falls under various designated sake schools that include mass-produced regular sake, Futsu-shu, and premium sakes, including Junmai Shu and Hojonzo Shu.
This article will cover Junmai sake through an investigation of its definition, production, flavor profile, and types of Junmai sake in production.
What Is Junmai Sake?
Junmai-shu means “pure rice sake” in Japanese. Thus Junmai sake is the purest form of sake, consisting of only rice, yeast, water, and koji. This is in stark contrast to Futsu and Hojonzo sakes which all contain added brewer’s alcohol or sugars.
As with many historical spirits, sake production has strict production regulations in terms of ingredients and production methodology. Junmai Sake must use a specified quality of sake rice.
Additionally, at least 15% of the rice must be koji-treated by adding a certain mold that converts rice’s carbs and proteins into sugars and amino acids, making them easier to ferment.
Another regulation requires a ratio of pure to polished. Polished rice refers to milled rice in which the outer layers are removed to isolate the flavorful core of the grain, known as the heart.
Until recently, Junmai sakes had to contain 70% milled rice. However, Junmai sakes no longer face such restrictions. They can use various ratios as long as they print them on the bottle label.
When you see 70% on the label, you know that there is 70% rice remaining after the polishing process and 30% polished rice.
Types of Junmai Sake
Junmai Sake isn’t simply pure sake but also further breaks down into various subcategories, which you’ll read about below.
Junmai sake is the broadest term for pure rice sake that encompasses a range of different milling practices. To many connoisseurs and sake lovers, Junmai represents the old-school brewing method as it was and has been since its origin.
The gold standard up until recently has been for Junmai sake to have 70% of the whole, original rice and 30% polished. Most Junmai sakes tend to follow this standard, but others have assumed ratios of 80% to 20%.
The higher the ratio, the stronger the flavor. Junmai sakes thus have the most robust and full-bodied flavor of all sake varieties. Junmai sakes tend to have a strong earthy, acidic, and rich rice flavor profile.
They are also a classic sake that’s more affordable and thus found as table sake in households or cheap restaurants. They taste best at room temperature.
Junmai Ginjo refers to Junmai sake with a milling rate of 60% with 40% removal. Ginjo is the designation of the milling rate and can be applied to Junmai or sakes with added alcohol.
Junmai Ginjo is a refined, premium sake with a higher price tag than regular Junmai. It has a more delicate flavor palate and mouthfeel than regular Junmai, ranging from fruity and juicy to savory and dry.
Junmai Ginjo tastes good at room temperature or chilled. If it is fruity, enjoying it chilled will enhance the fruity flavors.
An even higher standard of premium sake, Junmai Daiginjo has a milling rate of 50% milled to 50% removed, which is the gold standard for sakes worldwide. Sake-tasting competitions are almost exclusively Daiginjo sakes.
Daiginjo sakes are the most expensive sakes, known for the most elegant and refined flavors and lightest mouthfeels. They are the best sipping sakes and are always served chilled. Many brewers use 50% as a starting point, often surpassing it to a nearly fully milled sake product.
Daiginjo Junmais have sophisticated and complex flavor palates that depend on the fermentation method. Many types of daiginjo are sparkling sakes that taste like Champagne and are likewise reserved for special occasions.
Tokubetsu is a “special” designation that distinguishes premium sake not just by milling and ingredients but by brewing method and novel ingredients. Typically, junmai Tokubetsu has at least a 60% milling rate.
Junmai sake will always have only pure rice, water, and yeast, but Tokubtesu Junmai connotes a special form of Junmai that falls outside the norms of the other junmai designations.
For example, Junmai tokubetsu can have the same 60% milling rate as ginjo, but it might have a rice-forward, earthier, and more full-bodied mouthfeel that’s more akin to regular Junmai. This warrants the Tokubetsu junmai title.
Another form of Tokubetxu junmai could be a junmai that assumes a lesser filtration process, leaving rice mash residuals to create a cloudy sake.
How Junmai Sake Is Made
Junmai Sake, like all sake, undergoes an elaborate brewing and fermenting process. The process starts with the selection of premium sake rice. The next step is polishing the rice to create regular, ginjo, or daiginjo varieties of sake.
Once rice undergoes polishing, brewers steam the rice and add it along with water and koji to a vat with yeast. This first batch ferments for a couple of days before adding a second and third batch of rice, water, and koji to the original vat.
This unique layering of fermentation processes produces a much more potent alcohol content. The fermentation process takes between 60-90 days, after which Junmai sake undergoes filtration and a minimum aging process of 9 months to a year.
What Junmai Sake Tastes Like
Since Junmai sake is such a vast category, it encompasses a huge range of flavor and texture profiles.
Regular Junmai Sake that has a milled rate of 70% has the strongest earthy, umami, and rice flavor and the most robust, full-bodied texture.
The more polished rice that junmai sake contains, the lighter, sweeter, and more refined the flavor profile. Therefore, ginjo junmai has a sweeter and fruitier flavor profile, and daiginjo junmai is as light and delicate as champagne.
Ginjo and daiginjo have light and dry finishes that offer a more refreshing beverage to sip or pair with lighter fare.
How To Drink Junmai Sake
Junmai sake also tastes best with certain food pairings. The stronger-tasting regular Junmai tastes best with equally pungent foods like miso soup, fermented delicacies, and oily fish.
The more refined and elegant junmais are more versatile, pairing well with anything from sushi to fileted fish to pizza.
Finally, you can drink Junmai sake straight in a traditional sake cup called a choko or in a typical wine glass. At traditional Japanese restaurants and in households, there is also a specific drinking custom in which a person can never pour their own glass of sake.
A more modern twist on sake drinking has incorporated sake into numerous craft cocktails. Sake’s versatile flavors and textures work well in both sweet and savory cocktails. Sparkling sake would be a good substitute for champagne.
Top Junmai Sake Brands
The next time you’re in the market for Junmai sake, the following list of top Junmai Sake brands will narrow down your choices to the best options.
Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri
The Masumi brewery is one of the oldest and most venerable Sake producers in Japan, with over 360 years of continuous operation. The centuries-old brewery is in the Suwa highland basin, offering a cold, dry climate and clean, pure, locally sourced ingredients for optimal quality.
Masumi Okuden Kanstukuri is a regular junmai sake with a standard 70% remaining pure rice polish rate. It offers a mild taste and aroma with balanced sweetness, acidity, and umami flavors. The best way to drink Okuden Kanstukuri is heated and paired with a rich meat stew.
Fukuju Mikagego Junmai
Named for a Japanese deity that signifies happiness, wealth, and longevity, Fukuju is a brewery in the highlands of the Kobe region of Japan. They grow sake rice and source pure water from the mountains on which they lie.
Fukuju has been a favorite sake brewery for over 260 years. Mikagego Junmai is 70% milled junmai with a dry flavor profile and high acidity. It has won the gold medal at both International and US sake challenges. It pairs well with umami-rich and savory dishes like creamy mushroom risotto.
Sotenden junmai is a newer brand from the Miyagi Brewery that launched in 2002. It is a craft sake that expresses the spirit of the Kesennuma fishing town where the brewery is located.
The sake rice used in sotenden junmai was both engineered by Miyagi master brewers and grown on-site. Sotenden has a very high alcohol content of 16%, using Miyagi spring water brewed at fiercely cold temperatures.
The result is junmai with a subtle aroma, an acidic finish, and a smooth mouthfeel. The flavor palate is the perfect balance of sweet and umami. It tastes best when enjoyed at room temperature with a fish dish.
Meaning “water god” in Japanese, Suijin is ironically one of the driest junmai sakes on the list of brands we’ve covered. Suijin Junmai comes from the Japanese brewery, Asabiraki, a highly decorated brewery with a 12-year run of gold medal sakes at the National New Sake Competition.
Suijin is an award-winning new sake characterized by its dry, acidic, and pungent flavor. It’s a sophisticated and elegant junmai that is also versatile. Asabiraki brewery affirms that it tastes just as delicious warmed as it does chilled.
Suijin has a 16% alcohol by volume with a 70% polished rate. While regular junmai benefits from warming or room temperature serving, chilling Suijin brings out the refreshing aspects of its dryness along with more pronounced flavor palates.
Frequently Asked Questions
After covering the definition, subcategories, and brands of Junmai sake, you can get even more specific insight from the following list of frequently asked questions.
Does junmai sake pair well with food?
Junmai sake pairs wonderfully with food. The higher acidity and umami flavors in regular junmai stand up to equally rich and pungent food pairings like hearty stews, barbecued meats, sushi, nigiri, and more.
Junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo are lighter and more aromatic. They pair well with elegant, flakey fish dishes, sashimi, carpaccio, tofu, and milk cheeses.
What is the most expensive kind of junmai sake?
The most expensive king of junmai sake, and sake in general, is the daiginjo junmai sake. Its high rate of polished rice and high-grade ingredients makes for the most labor-intensive production, which in turn results in a higher cost.
Junmai daiginjo ranges in price. You can find affordable bottles, but the most expensive bottles on the market have reached upwards of 1600 dollars.
How should junmai sake be stored?
The best way to store junmai sake is either in the refrigerator or a cool, dark space. Higher temperatures increase the rate of spoilage. That said, junmai sake has a high alcohol content, which acts as a preservative.
If stored in a cool or cold-controlled climate with little to no light exposure, junmai sake has a shelf life of 10 months to a year. Once opened, junmai sake will last about a month before losing its flavor.
Junmai sake is a pure rice sake, fermenting the classic sake recipe of rice, koji, yeast, and water with no added alcohol. Junmai is a premium sake, using only the finest sake rice.
Junmai, as a broad category of sake, further breaks down into subgroups differentiated by polish rates, flavor profiles, and textures.
The earthy and umami flavors inherent in Junmai sake harken back to the drink’s original flavor profile, although newer, more refined ginjo and daginjo sakes are abundant. If you’ve tried Junmai sake, comment below with your opinions and preferences.