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The Astor Guide to Saké and Shochu

Saké and shochu are both made from rice. Saké is brewed, while shochu is distilled.

Shochu resembles vodka in some ways, but there are some differences: first, shochu is rarely more than 25% alcohol; second, good shochu tends to be earthier and more complex than even the most interesting vodkas. So if you’re looking for a new spirit to savor, shochu is an excellent one to try.

Saké can be divided into two types: one type is made only from water, rice, and koji (a type of mold, used as a fermenting agent), and the other contains a small amount of brewer’s alcohol, which is added after fermentation. The unfortified type is called Junmai, or “pure rice saké,” and the fortified saké is called Honjozo. If the label does not explicitly state that a saké is Junmai, then it can be assumed to be Honjozo.

For straight Honjozo sakés, the grains of rice have been polished down to 70% or less of their original mass. (This was once the case for Junmai sakés as well, but they recently became exempt from this requirement. To find the polishing grade of a Junmai, simply look on the label.)

After Honjozo, the next level of polishing is Ginjo, for which the grains are milled down to 60% or less of their original mass. The highest degree of polishing is called Daiginjo, and at this level the grains of rice have been polished down to a meager 50% or less of their original mass.

Just to confuse the matter slightly: The polishing grade has nothing to do with whether or not any brewer’s alcohol has been added to the saké. Thus, for pure sakés to which no alcohol has been added, “Junmai” is used as a prefix: e.g. Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo. If alcohol has been added, the sakés will simply be labeled as Ginjo or Daiginjo.

While there is often a direct correlation between a saké’s polishing level and its price, this is not to say that Junmai Daiginjo sakés are necessarily “better” than simple Junmai sakés. Nonetheless, the more highly polished the grains of rice are, the cleaner and more refined the resultant flavors and aromas will be.

So, if you prefer sakés that are light, delicate, and fruity, then you may want to spring for a Ginjo or Daiginjo. If you prefer sakés that are more robust and earthy, you may find that the Junmai and Honjozo styles suit your palate better.

Here’s an important note: If you want to serve your saké warm, stick to Junmai and Honjozo styles. Ginjo and Daiginjo sakés are too delicate to withstand the heat.

The classification of sakés doesn’t end with their polishing level; there are still further distinctions to be made. Here are some other common terms that may be applied to any saké, at any polishing grade:

Genshu sakés are undiluted – i.e., “cask strength” or “barrel strength.” (And yes, most sakés are indeed diluted with water prior to bottling.) As you might imagine, Genshu sakés tend to offer much sharper and more pronounced flavors.

Koshu (or Jukushu) sakés are aged. These sakés take on a golden amber hue, and often develop complex aromas of nuts and smoke.

Nama sakés are unpasteurized and are often released seasonally. These tend to be particularly delicate and must be kept refrigerated at all times. They offer very subtle fruity aromas.

Nigori sakés are the cloudy-looking ones on the shelf. They do not undergo the traditional filtration process. These sakés range from dry to sweet, and generally have a creamy texture and lots of fruit on the palate. Nigori sakés should be gently tipped upside down in the bottle a few times prior to serving.

Shizuku is “trickle” or “free-run” saké. It tends to be extremely delicate and, as one might expect, fairly expensive.

Tokubetsu means “special,” and often indicates the use of more highly polished rice than would typically be denoted by the polishing grade. The term may also refer to the use of “special” saké rice.

If your eyes glazed over a long time ago, just tell our sales staff what you’re looking for! We’ll be happy to help you choose the perfect saké or shochu. Otherwise, you can always try a bottle from our Top 11 list – a hand-picked collection of today’s best values.

Find the full sale selection here!