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A Guide to the Different Types of Sake

Sake is a rice wine originating from Japan. It gets made from fermented rice and is not sparkling like other alcoholic beverages such as champagne or beer.

Traditional sake wine for sale in Nagoya, Japan

It is typically sweet in flavor with subtle, layered flavor profiles, depending on the distillation process, materials used, and purity of ingredients. Sake has between 14 and 16 percent alcohol and can get made with or without brewer’s alcohol or distilled alcohol.

Sake is best enjoyed with friendly company all around. Below is a list of types of sake, including premium sake, table sake, Junmai sake, and even some sparkling sake, which is non-traditional but growing in popularity.

You will be well-versed in types of sake by the time you reach the end of this collection of fantastic rice wines.


Every Type of Sake There Is

It may seem a bit intimidating to read about over a dozen types of sake in one article, but each one is special, and each one is different, and it’s best to dive into the world of sake with both feet.

Traditional sake bottles at Pontocho district

Arabashiri

Arabashiri refers to the method of making sake. Therefore, premium sakes, as well as cooking sakes, can all carry the label of arabashiri, depending on the process.

“Arabashiri” means “rough run” and refers to the first batch of sake that comes through the pressing machine from the rice mash. That means it is unrefined and usually cloudy.

Essentially, no matter what type of sake is getting made, arabashiri refers to the first gush of it that comes out of the pressing machine without any pressure, making it unfiltered sake.

Akai

Although the sake brewing process is over two millennia old, akai sake originated in the seventies. It is red, unlike most other sakes, which are clear or translucent (cloudy). “Akai” means “red,” although this sake variety is more peach or pink than red.

The red color gets achieved by adding a bit of mold to make starch into sugar. The key is to only add a little of this mold, and the result is a smooth and sweet sake.

Daiginjo-shu

Daiginjo is one of the most expensive types of sake because its rice must be polished to 50 percent or even higher. This sake tastes fresh and crisp and is bright and clear.

It gets served chilled to show off its complex and clean flavor profile, and it goes best with sashimi or sushi– light, fresh foods.

If you’d like to try daiginjo without added junmai’s alcohol, you can go for a daiginjo sake that says “Junmai-daiginjo” on the label. It is the most premium sake.

Futsu

Futsu sake is one of the cheapest sake types, and it gets typically made by mixing food-grade rice with brewer’s alcohol. It is so prevalent in Japan and overseas that anyone who has tried a common sake has most likely had futsu sake.

It is also known as table sake because it is affordable and always accompanies meals in mid-range Japanese establishments. About 75 percent of all sake produced is futsu sake, a staple of Japan and worldwide.

Genshu

Genshu sake simply refers to sake that is undiluted. That means there is no added water or any other substance diluting the natural flavor of the sake or lowering its alcohol content.

Genshu sake can be Junmai, or even Junmai-Ginjo-Genshu. Genshu keeps sake’s naturally fermented alcohol content between 18 and 20 percent because it isn’t diluted.

Ginjo-shu

Ginjo is another designation for any sake made within regulated parameters. It must get made with pure rice that gets polished to at least 60 percent, and Ginjo sake can also be Junmai-Ginjo, which means that the rice gets polished to an even greater extent, and brewer’s alcohol was not added.

Ginjo is a premium sake with smooth flavors that fold over the tongue, and only the best ingredients go into making Ginjo. Ginjo sake pairs well with sashimi, steamed fish, and lightly seasoned foods.

Honjozo-shu

This is another label for sake that isn’t one of the sake types in itself, but simply a distinction about the sake brewing process.

Like Junmai sake, Honjozo sake rice must be polished, in this case, at least 70 percent (which, if you remember, means that the rice gets polished down to 70 percent of its original size).

However, it has a bit of distilled alcohol added to it, which makes the flavor a bit more elegant than a typical Junmai. The honjozo sake flavor is still strong and exciting, however.

Infused

Infused sake is a type of sake you can even make at home. It starts with a bottle of undiluted sake (most mid-range to premium sakes are undiluted with water to preserve their alcohol content and flavor).

You can add any fruit or herbs to the sake you choose, but many companies do this for you. Simply leave the fruit or whatever additives in the sake for five to six hours in a warm place and then strain the additives out. You have made infused sake.

The possibilities are endless. Popular flavors of infused sake include plum, black pepper, lemon peels, thyme, anise seeds, and cloves.

Junmai-shu

Junmai sake denotes sake with a bold flavor, and if it’s Junmai, it means that no distilled alcohol got added to make it. It is pure rice. Rice used to make Junmai sake is polished about 70 percent, meaning about 30 percent of the rice’s surface got scraped off.

Junmai is an excellent sake for oily foods like fish and poultry, and the Junmai label can apply to any type of sake, like Junmai Ginjo. Junmai Ginjo is a step up from Ginjo sake and a step down from Daiginjo sake.

Kijoshu

What sets kijoshu sake apart from other sake types is that it is thicker and gets brewed with rice, water, and sake, rather than simply rice and water like other sake types.

Kijoshu is more expensive than types of sake brewed more traditionally because the cost of sake is higher than the cost of brewing water from sake water wells.

Kijoshu goes nicely with sweet things like ice cream or even a thick cheese—it is sweet, thick, and takes some time to savor.

Koshu

Koshu sake is strong, and it is not for first-time sake enjoyers. It gets sometimes described as having a rough flavor, but the powerful flavor comes from longer aging times.

Most sake is drunk a few months after its production, but koshu brewers like to experiment with different types of barrels and longer aging times.

Lovers of Scotch or bourbon will enjoy trying koshu. Try drinking this strong sake after a meal. 

Namachozo 

During a typical sake brewing process, the sake undergoes pasteurization two times. For namachozo sake, it only gets pasteurized once.

Namachozo gets stored longer than double-pasteurized sake, which gives it a unique flavor profile, much like in the technique used by koshu sake brewers.

Since it has only gotten pasteurized once, it is best to enjoy namachozo sake soon after opening and keep it refrigerated. Sweet and sour dishes, oysters, fish, and sauteed vegetables go great with namachozo sake.

Namazake 

Nama sake is completely unpasteurized sake. Because it is unpasteurized, it is best served cold and drank quickly. It does not keep for long once the bottle is opened, even in the refrigerator, after opening.

Nama sake is fresh, refreshing, and bracing when served cold and is best paired with pizza, pasta, cheese, and red meat because of its acidity. Heavy, flavorful foods balance out the acid of the namazake.

Nigori

Sake is typically filtered meticulously after production to produce a completely clear liquid. Most sake that we are familiar with, even futsu sake, is completely clear. However, nigori sake is only roughly filtered to get the solid particles out, resulting in cloudy sake.

In nigori sake, some particles remain along with the cloudy appearance, and this sake is usually sweet but can also be tart. Nigori sake pairs well with barbecue, curry, Mexican food, and other deep, savory flavors.

Sparkling Sake

As we mentioned before, sake is traditionally known as a rice wine with no carbonation, which is why it is so important to serve it chilled. Poorer quality sake often gets served warm to disguise its flavor or lack thereof. 

Sparkling sake’s popularity is on the rise, with sake brewers bottling the sake before the fermentation process is complete, and the resulting bubbles get trapped in the bottle. The result is an effervescent beverage that can be unusually refreshing. 

Taru

Taru sake is so-called because it gets brewed in cedar casks. It has a dry flavor accompanied by wooden notes from the cedar casks in which it gets brewed.

There are two main types of taru sake—one served in a wooden cask (normally for special occasions) and one served in bottles. Taru sake goes well with eel, Japanese-style tofu, or yakitori (Japanese barbecue on sticks).

Tokubetsu 

When sake gets labeled as “Tokubetsu,” this word simply means “special.” That can mean many different things. Tokebetsu can apply to Junmai or Junmai-Ginjo sake or other sake types.

Tokubetsu means that some special element got added to the sake during the brewing process. This special element could be anything from a unique step in the brewing method that doesn’t typically occur with other sake types to much more highly polished rice than is required for Junmai or Junmai-Ginjo sake.

Tokubetsu is a catch-all label for sake that has been tweaked by the brewers because they either exceed requirements or do not meet them, and so defy classification.

Toso

Toso sake is traditionally drunk during the Japanese New Year and is unlike all the others on this list. It is described as a spiced and medicinal type of sake and is reverentially styled “O-toso.” 

The tradition of brewing and drinking toso sake goes back about a thousand years, and it is drunk to encourage good health and stave off infections during the New Year. Even the way toso gets served is unique—it gets poured from a teapot into three stacked cups.

Then each family member, beginning with the youngest member, will start drinking the toso, beginning with the smallest cup stacked on top. Spices found in toso include cinnamon, ginger, rhubarb, and other flavors and plants indigenous to Japan.

Yamahai

Yamahai refers to the method of brewing this type of sake, which is to leave out lactic acid during the fermentation process.

It turns out that over 100 years ago, brewers discovered that the bacteria that gets rid of foreign elements, everything except the wanted yeast, appears anyway if the sake gets kept at a high enough temperature during fermentation.

Lactic bacteria will eventually appear anyway even without being added, and that is the difference between yamahai sake and other (kimoto) sake. The weeks it takes for lactic bacteria to appear, allowing other elements to appear in the sake.

Luckily these are eventually killed by the lactic bacteria as they should be, but because these foreign elements can appear in the first place, they add their own unique and subtle flavor profiles to the yamahai sake.

This sake doesn’t taste much different than sake brewed more traditionally, but it is less labor-intensive. Yamahai can be served warm or chilled, depending on the drinker’s preference.

Which Type of Sake is Your Favorite?

We hope you’re thrilled to head out and try some sake, whether you’re familiar with the rice wine or just getting started. Sake can be a delicious accompaniment to your favorite dishes and meals, and trying out the different flavors and variety can be an exciting journey.

What are your favorite types of sake? Which type of sake appeals to you the most? Have you ever tried any of these on the list?

Leave a comment about your favorite type of sake, your favorite food pairings, or any other thoughts you have about this refreshing and delicious art form of a beverage.

Written by Paul Kushner

I have always had a deep interest in the restaurant and bar industry. My restaurant experience began in 1997 at the age of 14 as a bus boy. By the time I turned 17 I was serving tables, and by 19 I was bartending/bar managing 6-7 nights a week.

In 2012, after a decade and a half of learning all facets of the industry, I opened my first restaurant/bar. In 2015, a second location followed, the latter being featured on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

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