Sake 101
Ep.7 “Let’s Learn Types of Sake”

Aya and Tomoko (Tomo) are total beginners when it comes to drinking sake. 
They are here to learn how to enjoy sake from Saki, a professional sake sommelier, and journalist.
If you’re new to sake too then you’ve found the right place!

In today’s episode, Aya plans to cook a classic Japanese dish called nikujaga (braised meat and potatoes).
She saw that sake was one of the ingredients in her recipe
and started to wonder what the difference between cooking sake and drinking sake was.

Edited by TOMOKO
Translated by Saki Kimura & Jojo Brandel

At Aya’s House

Everyone knows how to cook nikujaga and it’s something I need to master too!

When Aya reads over the recipe something catches her off guard

Wait. “Sake” is listed as one of the ingredients, but I have two different kinds.
Should I use drinking sake or cooking sake? Is there even a difference between the two?
My god, can’t someone just tell me what to do!?

The Next Day

… I couldn’t even make
nikujaga. I’m never going to be a good mother.

Hey Aya, what’s wrong?

I tried to cook nikujaga last night but I didn’t know if I should use cooking or drinking. I got confused and gave up making the dish altogether.
I couldn’t even make the one dish that every Japanese person can make. I’m a failure…

What’s the difference? They are both sake, right?
Don’t overthink it, no one is even going to know the difference anyway.

That sort of thinking is lazy, Tomo. I just want to properly understand and
master sake.
I want to be the best mother and sake connoisseur the world has ever seen!

already a perfect model for a sake master and a mother!
Now listen up because I’m going to teach you about different categories of sake!


Do you remember from previous episodes that there are two categories of sake called
tokutei-meisho-shu and futsu-shu?

Yes. We learned about it in Ep.5 “Sake and Hangovers.”

Let’s go over the definition for each:

This is sake that has a designated name such as  “junmai,” “ginjo,” “honjozo,” etc. Brewers have to follow certain guidelines such as rice polishing ratio or amount of distilled alcohol to ensure a higher quality product.

Sake that has not been made up to tokutei-meisho-shu standards, which contains more additives and distilled alcohol than tokutei-meisho-shu.

Does that mean cooking sake is categorized as

No. In fact, cooking sake is something completely different and can be categorized as a
seasoning and not alcohol in Japan.

What? So, cooking sake is not even drinkable even though it’s called “sake”?

Cooking sake is more or less made of sake, but a certain amount of salt is added to help bring out the umami flavor in food.
Cooking sake is exempt from all special taxes on alcohol since it is not categorized as an
alcoholic beverage. This is why cooking sake is much cheaper than drinking sake in Japan. Cooking sake usually contains artificial umami enhancers or sweeteners, too.

So that’s why it’s cheaper!.

*Takes a lick*
Oh wow, it is salty. It also tastes much sweeter than regular sake.

Some cooking sake also has lower rice polishing ratio or alcohol proof than general sake.

I get that cooking sake should only be used in the kitchen, but does that mean drinking sake is not suitable for cooking?

You can use some drinking sake for cooking, but not everything. I don’t recommend using sake with a fragrant aroma like “ginjo” sake.
Futsu-shu, honjozo or junmai sake are better suited for cooking generally.

You won’t be able to taste the original flavor of your food if you use a fragrant sake.

I’ll try using cooking sake in my
nikujaga then. I only have fruity ginjo sake at home. 
But I want to review the basics one more time. What does “junmai” and “ginjo” mean? I keep hearing these words but I still don’t really know what they mean.

Junmai refers to sake that doesn’t contain distilled alcohol. Ginjo is sake made with rice that has been more than 40% polished (60% remaining). Sake made with rice polished more than 50% is labeled  “daiginjo.”

I can’t believe that there are types of sake that also contain distilled alcohol! It’s good to know that the names change based on the percentage the rice has been polished, though.

Don’t overthink it. Labels are just helpful guidelines to use when you are picking out a sake to buy. Just remember which type you like.

Wait up. I don’t think I get what “distilled alcohol” is… I thought that sake was only made with rice, water and rice koji (molted rice). I can’t believe that sake contains weird stuff like that and still be thought of as drinking sake when cooking sake isn’t even considered an alcoholic beverage!

Tomo, Tomo, Tomo. Distilled alcohol is just “shochu,” a kind of spirit born in Japan. Which, by the way, the last time I checked, is still your favorite kind of alcohol.

Wait. Does that mean some
sake is made with shochu?

Distilled alcohol just refers to an alcoholic beverage brewed with grain or molasses. It is used to adjust the flavor of sake by extracting aroma, maximizing dryness and so on.

Really? I still can’t help but wonder why they would put
shochu in sake… They don’t just do it increase the volume and produce it cheaper?

What’s with you today, Tomo?
The amount of distilled alcohol used in sake is regulated by law. You can’t really use it to increase the volume because they only allow the use of a very small amount… Actually, some breweries use shochu made from rice, because it adds additional flavor!

Now distilled alcohol is starting to sound kind of fancy. 

I get it now. I’m sorry I was so skeptical.

Brewers and distillers go to great lengths to provide customers with high-quality products even when following brewing restrictions and rules.

I think I get it now. By the way, I’ve heard about categories like
shinshu and koshu also. What are those?

Shin” means “new” and “ko” means “old”… Shinshu sounds like its fresh. Koshu sounds like old sake that should have been consumed a long time ago.

Not quite. Shinshu and koshu might seem like opposites because of their Chinese characters, but that’s actually totally wrong. 

What? You’re must be joking!

No, I’m being totally serious. Shinshu just means “sake made this year.” The “Brewery Year (BY)” for sake is from July 1st to June 30th the following year. Sake labeled BY2018 means that it was made sometime between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019. There are some theories behind why the BY is different from our calendar year. Some think that it’s brewed from the first harvest of rice in a year. But to be honest, the definition of Shinshu is ambiguous.

What about
koshu? Isn’t it just old sake that never got sold?

Koshu refers to sake that has been aged for over three years.

You can age sake like wine or whiskey?

Yes. Aging sake changes its color, aroma and flavor.

How does it change?

The color turns to a darker brown and its flavor becomes richer and sweeter like caramel or dried fruit. One of my favorite ways to enjoy
koshu is to pour it on ice cream like syrup.

Wow that sounds great.
I didn’t know you could use
koshu like brandy or whiskey.

All the different sake categories might seem complicated, but learning about each characteristic allows you to find the perfect sake for your own tastes. It’s worth the effort!

I finally get it!
Now I’m going to make the world’s most delicious
nikujaga. Do you guys want to try it? I have sake too!

We would love to!

In Summary
– Sake can be roughly divided into two categories: 
 1. Tokutei-meisho-shu
 Sake with a designated name such as “junmai,” “ginjo,” “honjozo,” etc. Brewers have to follow certain guidelines such as the ratio that the rice is polished or adhere to guidlines regard the amount of distilled alcohol used to ensure a higher quality product.
 2. Futsu-shu

 Sake that has not been made up to tokutei-meisho-shu standards and contains more additives and distilled alcohol than tokutei-meisho-shu.

– Drinking sake is an alcoholic beverage: in contrast, cooking sake is categorized as a seasoning. You can use drinking sake for cooking, but you should know that some sake might be not suitable for your recipe.

– Don’t cling to categories too much. They are only rough guides for you to find the best sake for your own tastes.