Serious Eats: Drinks
Sake School: Ginjo and Daiginjo
Ginjo sakes are relatively new in the sake world—they weren't widely produced until about 50 years ago. At that time, sake had an image of being sweet and flabby. Sake brewers gradually began polishing the rice further as an experiment, and found the result to be lighter and drier sakes that were extremely enjoyable. Ginjo sakes have a minimum of 60% seimaibuai, or percentage of rice remaining after polishing. Because this is only a minimum, many brewers polish their rice for ginjo sakes past 60% to achieve a smoother, cleaner style. Today, even though the consumption of sake may be on the decline in Japan, the consumption of ginjo grade sakes is still increasing.
Even though the difference between junmai and ginjo can be as little as a 10% polishing change, the change in aroma and flavor can be quite significant. Junmais have subdued aromas and richer body; ginjos, on the other hand, have more expressive aromas of fruit and floral notes, with a softer finish. Ginjos tend to be crowd pleasers: they are smooth, easy drinking, and have great balance.
Ginjos also are often a great value; fantastic ginjo sake can be found in the $50-70 range on wine lists or $20-35 retail. Some well priced, excellent-quality ginjos to look out for include Nanbu Bijin Junmai Ginjo, Jokigen Junmai Ginjo*, and Dassai 50 Junmai Ginjo.
While the ginjo category offers wonderful sakes, for a special occasion nothing quite compares to the elegance of Daiginjo. Daiginjo, which literally means "big ginjo," is often the most prized bottling of the sake brewery, representing the height of the brewmaster's ability. A minimum of 50% of the outer rice layers must be polished away to classify a sake as daiginjo.
Because the breweries are using their best rice at the highest polishing rate, extra care is taken in the other steps of production as well. Daiginjos are often brewed in smaller tanks than Junmais and Ginjos, to better regulate the temperature and speed of fermentation. The koji is also painstakingly made; some breweries even have a separate room specifically for making daiginjo koji.
Until now, we've only discussed the polishing rate of the sake rice as the main factor in changing the type of sake produced. There is another big element involved as well, which is called shibori, or pressing.
After fermentation, sake resembles a tank of rice porridge. There are a few different methods used to separate the liquid from the solids. Most often, the sake is pressed in an assakuki, a contraption resembling an accordion. The sake is placed in mesh bags that sit in the folds of the "accordion," so that when pressed together, the liquid runs through a pipe located on one end of the device. This is the most aggressive method of pressing, and yields the greatest quantity of sake.
A more delicate method of pressing is called funashibori. The sake is placed in mesh bags and laid down inside a long box, called a "fune" for its boat-like appearance. The lid of the box is gently pressed down to release the sake. This results in a considerably smaller yield compared to the assakuki method, but the end product is a more refined sake with less flavor from the lees (the rice and yeast sediment left behind).
There is a third method, which is occasionally used for the finest daiginjos: shizuku. Shizuku, which literally means "droplets," refers to a "free run," pressing, or lack of pressing altogether. The sake is placed in mesh bags and suspended from poles within tanks. Only the liquid that drips out is bottled. The finished product is ethereal and seamless, although usually with a price tag to match. A couple of shizuku sakes worth the expense are Ginga Shizuku "Divine Droplets" Junmai Daiginjo and Okunomatsu "Shizuku Juhachidai Ihei" Daiginjo.
Another element that can raise the price of daiginjo is to mature the sake for a few years at a very low temperature, often as low as -3 degrees Celsius. This helps the sake to achieve an unparalleled depth and complexity. To experience this firsthand, look for Dewazakura "Yukimanman" Daiginjo or Yoshinogawa Daiginjo*.
Have you ever tried Daiginjo? Do you have a favorite?
Disclosure: Sake breweries marked with asterisks are part of the sake portfolio I manage for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York and Lauber Imports of NY