The Meaning of Sake

Western Mistaken Nomenclature of the Japanese Word ‘Sake’

Did you know that in the Japanese language the word ‘sake’ merely means ‘alcohol?’ It does not necessarily mean ‘rice wine’ like Western countries have mistakenly defined in our books and our laws.  In Japan the word ‘sake’ can refer to any wine, beer, or even distilled spirit. The Japanese word ‘sake’ is kind of like the colloquial word ‘booze,’ is for Western countries. The correct word in Japanese which refers to rice wine in particular is ‘Seishu.’

Japanese, however, more commonly refer to rice wine as ‘Nihon-shu,’ which literally translates as ‘the sake of Japan.’ And it is recognized as the holy drink of Japan. Japan has a history of sake making tradition constantly perfecting imperfections through centuries and centuries of passing down sake brewing knowledge and technique to try to make each batch of sake a little better than the last. Brewing sake, before pasteurized, is alive with happy yeast cells hard at work brewing the sake. Some sake breweries even sing to their live brewing yeast cells songs which were passed down from their forefathers to keep the yeast cells happy and thriving during the sake brewing process. Japanese sake brewers will tell you that they forever will keep perfecting sake and that no sake has been completely perfected.  This philosophy of endless sake perfection from generation to generation has been passed down in the Japanese sake industry for about 14 centuries now.

Premium Sake Classifications

With Sake made in Japan there are three classes of Premium Sake referring to the milling level of the rice grain. And, each classification has both Pure Sake (Junmai) and Blended Sake (Honjozo) making a total of six premium types.

The Junmai Side (Pure)

The three classifications for Pure Premium Sake are; Junmai,  Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo. The word ‘Junmai’ in Japanese literally means ‘pure rice.’ Since the kanji characters for Junmai literally mean ‘pure rice,’ any time you see the word ‘Junmai,’ you know the ingredients in the Junmai sake are purely; Rice, Yeast Starter, and Water.  

The three levels of classification refer to the percentage of the rice grain still left after milling the outer shell of the rice grain (Junmai: 70% or less, Junmai Ginjo: 60% or less, Junmai Daiginjo: 50% or less).

If the premium sake classification does NOT contain the word “Junmai,” than it is not ‘pure rice sake,’ but rather blended type sake called Honjozo, Ginjo, Daiginjo.

The Honjozo Side (Blended)

Honjozo means that a brewing alcohol, (Jouzou alcohol) was also added to the Junmai to balance flavors and bring up complex layers of the flavors and aromas. The three classifications of premium blended sakes are; Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo. Since Jouzou Alcohol (distilled spirit ingredient alcohol) has been added it can no longer be called a Junmai (pure rice sake) because the alcohol was added.

What throws everybody off with the terminology in classification is that the word ‘Honjozo’ is dropped off the Ginjo and Daiginjo classifications even though these are also blended sakes which have the added jouzou alcohol. You never call sake a ‘Honjozo Ginjo,’ or a ‘Honjozo Daiginjo.’ They are called ‘Ginjo,’ and ‘Daiginjo.’ Therefore, Pure Premium Sake Classification is; Junmai, Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo. And Blended Premium Sake Classification is; Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo. These are the six premium sake classifications of Japan.  

Jarrell’s Top Pick

Hakutsuru Brewery – Sho-Une (‘Soaring Clouds’) – Junmai Daiginjo Sake

Hakutsuru Brewery, founded 1743

Prefecture: Hyogo Prefecture

Label: Sho-Une “Soaring Clouds.”

Classification: Junmai Daiginjo

Rice Grain: Yamada Nishiki

Character: Smooth, Lush, Fruity.  Floral Delicate notes of apple and pear balance with lush strawberry & nectarine.

Hakutsuru is located in the famed Nada district of Kobe, a leading saké production area. The name Hakutsuru means “white crane.” The crane’s reserved character and graceful appearance along with the cultural association of seeing a crane in flight as an auspicious sign, makes the crane an ideal symbol to represent excellent quality.  

Sho-Une is my Top Pick. This Junmai Daiginjo has an incredible retail price for this classification and quality of sake. The classification alone (Junmai Daiginjo) requires the Hakutsuru Brewery to mill at least HALF of the rice grain away before even beginning. And the rice grain used in this wonderful sake is the Yamada Nishiki rice grain. This particular grain is the top demanded rice grain for making premium sake in Japan. And the Hakutsuru Brewery is located right in the middle of Japan’s home region of the original Yamada Nishiki rice grain, Nada Region of Hyogo Prefecture. Nada Region’s sake breweries, such as Hakutsuru Brewery, should be given more credit for their influential role in the original production of the Yamada Nishiki rice grain in 1936 and significantly improving modern Japanese sake quality standards. This was quite a leap for the Japanese sake industry considering Japan had already for centuries been producing sake since the Heian Period (710-794) . 

Buy it here Total Wines: $19.99/720ml, (MIX 6: $17.99) or here

Jarrell Sieff

Jarrell Sieff is an experienced sake importer who was first pulled into the industry not only for the love of sake, but also for the love of Japan. Jarrell has studied Japanese since childhood, focused on Ancient Japanese Translations at Washington University in St. Louis, and also lived in Japan several years attending several Japanese Universities. Jarrell is Author of A Practical Guide to Living in Japan (published by Stonebridge Press), a book which helps Westerners beyond tourist visa reside in Japan. Jarrell is founding President of Marin Sake Imports, Inc. a Japanese sake Import and Distribution company in Northern California which focuses on Japanese products rich in Japanese culture for mainstream chain retail America.