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Clearly making the grade isn’t such an easy task

by John Gauntner

One of the biggest barriers to learning about sake is the terminology used to define the various grades. It is not a simple linguistic matter, as even the average Japanese person, more often than not, does not know specifically to what the terminology refers. These terms were not coined at once, nor do they reflect a carefully planned grading scheme, as was the case for wine. Rather, they emerged haphazardly and piecemeal in response to market changes.

For example, until World War II, all sake was made with only rice and no additives. There was no need to call it junmaishu, today’s term for such sake, as at the time there was nothing else. It was only when the adulteration of sake with liberal amounts of distilled alcohol became increasingly common that the need arose for a “rice-only sake” descriptive term.

Same with the term honjozo, which indicates a sake made by the “original brewing method.” In the strictest sense this tag is inaccurate, as a small amount of distilled alcohol is added. But the term emerged in response to market changes, as a way to tell the public, “We are not adding tons of pure alcohol, sugar and acids to increase yields, just a tad of alcohol, and only to smoothen the flavor.”

Even more vague and illogical is the common term ginjoshu. It has come to represent good sake in general. In that we can trust, but why the word ginjo? What does it mean, and where did it come from?

Such sake has been widely available for little more than 30 years — but the word ginjo has been around much, much longer.

From an etymological viewpoint, the gin of ginjo ( ) is taken from the word ginmi ( ), which means “to select carefully.” The jo means “to brew.” So, the meaning can be deduced as “to brew from carefully selected materials.”

Today, as many readers know, ginjoshu refers to sake brewed with rice that has been milled to remove at least the outer 40 percent of the grain. Proteins and fats are ground away, leaving only fermentable starches. This, combined with care and effort at every stage of the process, leads to the wonderfully enjoyable sake we know today as ginjoshu.

But originally, the term had no such strict definition. It was first used in reference to sake prepared in small amounts, using the finest materials and methods, that was brewed for tasting competitions in the Meiji Period. In official media, the term ginjo-shu first appeared in 1906 in a publication called the “Jozokyokaishi (History of the Brewing Association).”

But the term ginjo-shu was confined to industry insiders for several decades; no product was marketed using that term until 1947, when a small brewer in Chiba making a sake called Kinmon Fusa Masamune first used it. (They are still in business today, by the way.) Within just 10 years, there were 20 companies — including the well-known Haku Botan of Hiroshima and Chiyo no Sono of Kumamoto — attempting to market sake under the name ginjoshu.

There was just one problem: No one was drinking it. They couldn’t sell the stuff. It was just too expensive to be viable. In the end, these pioneering brewers ended up mixing the fruit of their labor back into their regular sake. Ouch.

It was not until the early 1980s that ginjoshu became widely available, and that a significant number of brewers began to produce such extravagant sake. Shortly after, the qualifying standard for ginjoshu was defined by law.

It was also about then that daiginjoshu, a subdivision of ginjo-shu that uses even more finely milled rice, came into use as well. There is also the further term chuginjoshu; while not legally defined (or even official recognized), it is understood as referring to sake better than ginjo but not quite up to the mark of daiginjo.

The folly of all this obfuscation is that in the end, sake is usually fairly priced, and you will generally get what you pay for. The current grading system has its faults, not the least of which is that the terms are not very descriptive, but they do have an interesting logic to them — provided you look at the history of sake.

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Chiyo no Sono (Kumamoto)
Daiginjo

Long a courageous innovator, Chiyo no Sono was actually the 11th brewer in the country to market a product called ginjo. It was also one of the first brewers to produce additive-free sake (junmaishu) after the war.

Their top grades of sake are extremely elegant. These include this daiginjo: clean, light, a little crisp, mildly fragrant and wonderfully balanced. While not cheap at 4,900 yen for a 720-ml bottle, it is easily one of the most refined sake around.