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The Nikkei Style site tackles an interesting question – when is a junmai daiginjō not a junmai daiginjō?

The article is part of a series called “Today’s cutting edge of sake” that focuses on sake-related topics. Titled “If it’s a junmai daiginjō, why not call it that?”, the article takes a close and sometimes critical look at the tokutei meisho shu (特定名所酒) system for classifying or grading sake.

The article opens by admitting that tokutei meisho shu may be an unfamiliar term even to Japanese readers who understand junmai or ginjō. Kei Sugimura, writer of the article and author of 白熱日本酒教室 (hakunetsu nihonshu kyoshitsu, Passionate Sake Classroom) [love the over-the-top book titles] also reports on a trend for sake that qualifies as ginjō or daiginjō to not call itself by that classification name. But why not?

Many people rely on terms like junmai or ginjō when ordering or buying sake, which are tokutei meisho-shu rather than names of sake from individual breweries. Sake that qualifies as tokutei mesho-shu makes up about 30% of all production, with the rest classed as futsūshu or “table sake”. To put it simply, the tokutei meisho-shu are made with more time and effort than normal production.

And since they require more time and effort, you would think that brewers would put ginjō or daiginjō front and centre on their labelling if they could. But recently, some brewers aren’t.

Sugimura goes into more detail on tokutei meisho-shu, emphasising the distinction between sake made with distilled alcohol* (アルコール添加/アル添, arukōru tenka or aruten for short) and without (純米, junmai). The increased time and effort is accounted for in part by milling – to make the grade rice must be milled to 70% (honjōzō), 60% (ginjō, junmai ginjō) or 50% (daiginjō, junmai daginjō) of its original whole grain weight. By comparison, white table rice is usually milled to just 90%. He also comments that the ground-off rice “powder” is used to make rice crackers and other products, something I didn’t know until Miyuki Karahashi mentioned it when she took me on a tour of the Aizu Homare brewery.

Most sake is made not with table rice like the famous Koshihikari, but instead with sake-specific varieties called shuzō kōteki mai (酒造好適米, rice suitable for sake brewing) or sakamai (酒米, sake rice) that have the essential carbohydrate – to be broken down into sugar by kōji and used by yeast to make alcohol – concentrated in the centre in the white shinpaku core and proteins and lipids at the outside where they will be milled away to remove zatsumi (undesirable flavours).

Milling to 60% or less qualifies as special processing, so qualifies a sake for the designation tokubetsu (特別, special) as used in tokubetsu honjōzō and tokubetsu junmai. What separates these from ginjō, which also has a milling requirement of 60%, is the brewing. Ginjō and daiginjō must be brewed cooler and for longer.

There used to be a requirement of milling to 70% for junmai, mirroring that for honjōzō, but it was done away with as brewing techniques developed. The same applies to tokubetsu honjōzō and tokubetsu junmai, as the requirements can now be met without necessarily milling to 60% (e.g. by using sake-specific rice or some other “special” treatment).

Sugimura draws the reader’s attention to how the classifications are separated by process, not by aroma or flavour. [Can’t agree with this enough. It’s something I’ve been struggling with when trying to talk about tokutei meisho shu.] Junmai is good in its own way, as is daiginjō, but that’s not what the tokutei meisho shu system is about. And although there’s a tendency for price to decrease with milling ratio, a lot of that depends on raw material costs (more milling = more expensive) and production time (cool brewing takes longer).

All this leads to the key question: “is tokutei meisho shu sake better?”

Sugimura’s comment is that some sake have emerged recently that, although they tick all the boxes for their classification, he’s still not happy with calling them that. One is Dassai, who produce a junmai daiginjō milled to just 23%. There’s a 10% difference between milling requirements for ginjō and daiginjō, so shouldn’t a sake with rice milled to 23% be called something else? [Natsuki Kikuya, my tutor on the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake, claimed there’s no difference once you go under 30% as it’s all shinpaku at that point, but thought it was good for marketing purposes.] The tokutei meisho shu has not kept up with the speed of advances in brewing technology and technique.

To be continued tomorrow as Sugimura looks at some brewers who are turning away from the system – and doing just fine, thank you very much.



*I found an interesting reference to brewing/brewer’s alcohol in a publication from the National Research Institute of Brewing, which I’ll cover another time.