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How to Read a Sake Label Part 2: Honjozo and Junmai Explained

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In April, we featured an article decoding Ginjo to get you started on your sake journey. One takeaway is that Ginjo sake can be seen as a “new” style because the technology needed to brew it, most notably the machines that can polish rice below 70%, were not widely adopted until about forty years ago. Today Ginjo and Daiginjo grade sake, while usually more expensive than other categories, is commonly produced and easy to find. This is to be celebrated: a lower polishing ratio means a more refined sake with fewer off-flavors.

You may be wondering if there is any reason to drink “lower” grades, or the “old” styles such as Honjozo and Junmai, other than to save a few bucks. This is the question that part two aims to answer. But first we must first consider a little history behind a sake-brewing ingredient called Jozo alcohol.

Jozo alcohol is a neutral spirit commonly made from sugarcane which is sometimes added to sake. While producers had been fortifying sake with shochu for centuries in order to prevent spoilage, the technique became especially prominent during World War II when a rice shortage led brewers to resort to copious Jozo additions as a method of stretching supply. Because most sake is proofed down before bottling, the result was a thinning of flavor and structure resulting in some wimpy brews.

Once the rice shortage ended there was no longer a need to stretch supply, but producers derived a useful technique from this era: they discovered that fruity aromatic compounds generated by Ginjo fermentation are more soluble in alcohol than in water. Therefore, if you add a small amount of Jozo, the aroma of Ginjo sake is emphasized. However, it is common for brewers to add a dash of Jozo to non-Ginjo styles to produce what is today called Honjozo sake. A sake brewed without Ginjo techniques and without Jozo is called Junmai.

Honjozo, which translates to “original production method,” is by legal definition brewed with no more than a 10% Jozo addition and the rice polished to at least to 70%. However, there are a handful of stylistic qualities common in Honjozo beyond these dry technicalities. For one, Honjozo is rarely fruity or potently aromatic. Honjozo has a subtle, rice-like aroma with touches of savoriness and sometimes a light nuttiness. On the palate it is simple, lightly structured, easy to drink, and takes well to warming. One example that is widely distributed in the States is Ozeki’s “Karatamba.” This inexpensive Honjozo is light bodied and mild in flavor, with touches of white rice, sugar cane, and raw cashew.

Junmai, which translates to “pure rice,” is a much different beast. Junmai is less likely to be as heavily charcoal-filtered as Honjozo, giving most Junmai a Chardonnay-like yellow hue and richer body. Also, because there is less dilution in Junmai, the sake tends to be more structured with stronger savoriness, sweetness, body, and acidity. Like Honjozo, Junmai takes well to warming and is a wonderful food partner for richer, fattier dishes that can overwhelm a subtle Ginjo. An excellent and widely- available example to try is Kurosawa’s “Kimoto Junmai.” Kimoto is a centuries-old way of creating the fermentation starter than results in a sake with more tangy acidity and sometimes a funky, yogurt-like aroma. Kurosawa’s Kimoto is rather clean, with all of the rice-like aroma of Ozeki’s Honjozo but with added touches of banana and honey. The palate is creamy and rich, contrasting Ozeki’s light and crisp style.

We will maintain that if you are new to sake the best place to start is with Ginjo. It is best consumed chilled and typically tastes fruity with few rough edges, much like a well-made white wine. But, once you are ready to try more robust styles that pair better with savory Italian dishes or red meat, a robust, warmed Junmai is an excellent choice. Likewise, if you want something subtle and unobtrusive to knock back with Japanese bar snacks, Honjozo is hard to beat.

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Stephen Allison

Stephen Allison holds Certified Sommelier, Certified Cicerone, and WSET Level 3 Award in Sake distinctions and is a former Sommelier with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

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