One way to categorize sake is to indicate whether or not it has had alcohol added to it during fermentation. Two groups can be distinguished:
- The Junmai group: Sake that has not received any added alcohol. A category in which Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daïginjo are distinguished, depending on the degree of polish on the rice.
- The non Junmai group: sake that received distilled alcohol, including Honjozo, Ginjo and Daiginjo (naturally deprived of the Junmai designation).
Over the past few decades, the quality of sake has improved considerably, thanks in particular to the in-depth work of the producers, who have focused their efforts on polishing the rice, selecting the strains of yeast and, more generally, on the care taken in the production process. The technicality and complexity of the methods have increased greatly since the 1950s, but things were different before that .
It is moreover at the end of the Second World War that the foundations of the Junmai trend were discovered. At that time, rice was insufficient to feed the entire population and there was no question of reserving too much of it for sake production. In this context, producers were forced to increase yields by developing the "Sanbaïzojoshu" technique, which literally means "increase sake three times," a technique that led to the eponymous product. This alcoholic beverage was the result of a process that made it possible, with the same quantity of rice, to triple the volumes obtained compared to a traditional method. To do this, the rice in fermentation (moromi) was mixed with what is called "Jozo alcohol", a distilled alcohol previously diluted with spring water. Flavoring agents were then added to bring sweetness and a little acidity. Of course, the quality of this sake was not at all like the one we find today, but it did the trick during the war and in the period that followed.
This Sanbaïzojoshu gradually disappeared from the market because the laws and taxes on alcoholic beverages changed profoundly to adapt to the country's improving situation. Moreover, most of our contemporaries never had the opportunity to taste this Sanbaïzojoshu sake. But unfortunately, this episode in the history of Japan has engraved in the collective unconscious a negative prejudice about the category of sake with added alcohol. This is wrong today, because the techniques have changed a lot since then. It should also be noted that this alcohol is not bad in itself, it is produced from sugar cane or cereals and is commonly used as a basis for the domestic production of various liqueurs such as Umeshu, for example. One thing that is rarely noticed is that most of the Daiginjo sake put forward by the Kuramoto in competitions is not Junmai. They have had alcohol added to them. This is a classic and well-mastered technique that brings freshness and emphasizes the aromas. It is a key method in the brewing process because the aromas present in the moromi solubilize much better in the alcohol than in the water, so we might as well add a little alcohol to capture them before they end up in the kasu (sake lees-pickled vegetables).
The quantity of alcohol that can be added is strictly defined by law and must be, for a Honjozo for example, less than 10% of the total quantity of rice used for brewing. This figure of 10% seems important, but one has to take into account the spring water that will be added throughout the process, and in a much larger quantity than the rice.
Over time, drinking sake takes on a different meaning. Palates become more refined, looking for beautiful taste experiences. Sake becomes a luxury product, carefully processed by producers who compete with each other in ingenuity to improve the quality of their products. New frameworks are emerging within the Kura, and each one imposes strict policies on production methods. For quality, of course, but also to stand out from the competition and make a name for themselves. For example, some breweries decided to produce only Junmai sake, and therefore to stop adding alcohol to all their wines. They nicknamed themselves the "Junmaï Kura".
One of the advantages of the Junmai method is that we are witnessing a time where sake is making a strong comeback among the younger generation of Japanese and is also being exported very well. This concept of "100% fermented", "produced from rice and water only", delivers a simple and clear message to consumers who are still unfamiliar with the world of sake. There is something reassuring to know that nothing has been added. But this argument, interesting as it is, is quickly reaching its limits. Just as one does not choose a wine solely on the basis of grape variety, the discerning consumer will be more concerned about whether the sake he or she selects is appropriate for the situation in which it will be consumed. Thus, it is good taste to choose an honjozo to drink with a nabe or yakitoris for example, a Junmaï or a Ginjo for a chic aperitif or to accompany sashimis, a Daiginjo with a fine meal or to make a nice gift. Moving away from technical concepts to focus on taste characteristics is by far the best way to choose, and for that, you have to taste!