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Continuing on with yesterday’s article from Nikkei Style, which digs into why the “lowly”, less-polished classifications are in the spotlight abroad.

One of the three Kura Master Jury Prizes was won by Shichihonyari junmai Wataribune, brewed by Fukuda Shuzō in Shiga Prefecture. Made from the rare sake-specific rice Shiga Wataribune #6 milled to 77%, it’s rich and full-bodied with a long aftertaste.

Another Jury Prize winner was Yamada Nishiki Saika junmai daiginjō, but in this case it won not for its daiginjō classification but because the jury rated its complexity of flavour and aftertaste.

Eri Asaoka, who helped to organise Kura Master, hopes these results from France will encourage domestic sake producers to bring back diversity of flavour. Some time after WWII, sake brewing became a race to achieve the highest milling ratio, and although the clear flavours produced by heavy milling have their own appeal she’s happy to see more than one standard to judge sake by.

Shūichi Ōgura, owner of the sake shop Imadeya in Chiba, comments that although there are many fine daiginjō brewers always have the choice of only milling lightly when using good sake-specific rice. For example, the “afs” label produced by nearby brewery Kudoizumi uses local Fusa no Mai sake-specific rice milled to 65%. It stands out for its fruit wine-like character and rich acidity that develops as it brews.

More and more brewers are turning to low milling ratios. Niida Honke in Fukushima Prefecture produces Niidashi Zenshu, made with organic Yume no Ka sake-specific rice milled to 70%. Aramasa in Akita produce a limited edition “96% junmai” that draws out everything possible from the prefectural sake-specific rice variety Akita Sake Komachi, the prefecture’s answer to the “king” variety Yamada Nishiki. Normal table rice is polished to leave around 90%, making the rice used for this sake closer to whole grain than what people usually eat.

Kojimasō Honten in Yamagata, famous for their Tōkō brand, launched a new brand line called Kojimaya in April 2018. One of the labels under that brand is Mudai Ichikotsu (無題―壱, “untitled keynote”, I think), and it doesn’t fit into any of the tokutei meisho classifications. (See also The problem with tokutei meisho for how these legal classifications fail to recognise or reward more labour-intensive brewing methods.) Made by an original method inspired by a sake mentioned in the ancient text Kojiki, junmai daiginjō is brewed repeatedly until it develops an extremely deep sweet-and-sour flavour. Owner Kenichirō Kojima complains that recently the sake market has been relying too heavily on milling ratio to market itself.

Marie Chiba, owner of the Gem by Moto bar in Ebisu, Tokyo, comments that once rice is milled beyond 40% everything starts to taste the same. [Natsuki Kikuya, my tutor on the WSET course, said that it’s impossible to taste any difference beyond 30% as the inside of the rice grain in sake-specific rice is so homogeneous.] Milling removes the amino acids that produce “undesirable” flavours, but at the same time makes it difficult to draw out the individual characteristics of any one rice variety.

The article also touches on the point that sake used to be aged before drinking, like wine, but that fell out of fashion. Ageing gives amino acids and sugars time to undergo the Maillard reaction, turning the sake brown and generating a wide range of different flavours. Although sake aged for 5-10 years has a wonderful depth of flavour, it was left behind when the influence of the tax system and other factors diverted the industry into all-out competition based on milling.

Quoting an unnamed sommelier, the article states claims that daiginjō and ginjō have a serious flaw – unlike wine or whisky they do not last long after opening as they quickly lose their delicate aroma. That’s not so much of a problem for styles made with rice that was not so heavily milled, such as junmai or aged koshu, which will keep for days. So the final word to consumers is to let go of milling ratio, and look for other ways to choose sake.

I really enjoyed this article! I hope it’s right in that sake will become more diverse and embrace the types previously seen as rough or somehow “less” than others, as I think that’s an artificial and unhelpful way of looking at what’s available.

My other half also finds it hard to differentiate between daiginjō, preferring the more distinctive ginjō and honjōzō classes.

The milling also reminded me of dark roasting of cocoa and coffee beans, which ensures the uniformity required by mass-produced chocolate but at the same time removes any trace of the beans’ original characteristics. (And conceals defects, but that’s a whole other story.)

I get the focus on milling ratio, at least from the consumer side. It’s hard to sift through the thousands of labels on the market and find one you like. A number is always a nice shortcut. But a little more effort will get you so much more return!