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The difference between junmai-shu, honjōzō-shu, and futsū-shu


Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. However, rice is not necessarily the only ingredient used. Other substances are sometimes added.


As a matter of fact, virtually all sake sold contains added alcohol. Indeed, in some cases sugars and acidulants are mixed into the sake.


If you are not aware of this, the likelihood that you will find good sake is greatly reduced.


Two definitions of sake
Sake that is made from just rice, water, and fermentation starter (kōji) is termed junmai-shu.


This junmai-shu is graded according to the amount of rice polished from the grain used in production. The names of these grades (from lowest to highest) are: junmai-shu, tokubetsu junmai-shu, junmai ginjō-shu, and junmai daiginjō-shu. All of these refer to sake made with only the traditional basic ingredients.


However, there are varieties of sake that have added alcohol. These are called honjōzō-shu. The added alcohol is generally 95% alcohol distilled from cane sugar. This is added to the junmai-shu.


Up to a point (when the proportion of added alcohol is less than 10%), alcohol can be added to junmai-shu and still be called honjōzō-shu (and in some cases, it can be called daiginjō-shu or ginjō-shu).


However, beyond that point, if more alcohol is added, the correct term is futsū-shu. Some sake on the market is produced by adding alcohol, diluting to half strength, and then adding sugars and acidulants.


In short, “Nihon-shu” (or “sake”) can mean two different things. It can refer to junmai-shu, or it can refer to a drink produced by adding distilled alcohol to junmai-shu.


Note: These classifications are indicative, and are not intended to be taken strictly.


Things you need to know if you want to drink junmai-shu
Once upon a time, Nihon-shu (sake) meant junmai-shu (no additives such as distilled alcohol). The advent of the practice of making sake with added alcohol has much to do with the War.


During the Second World War, there was a shortage of Japan’s staple food, rice. Japan could not afford the luxury of growing rice for sake production. As the supply of sake rice dwindled, a solution was proposed: add alcohol and dilute the mixture. Other additives such as sugar and acidulants were also added.


Alcoholic beverages made by diluting sake to as little as one part in three appeared on the market. These were known as sanbaizō jōshu (literally, “triple-diluted sake”). As the name implies, this method allowed brewers to produce three times as much sake. It is no longer legal to produce sanbaizō jōshu, but there are any number of beverages available in which sake is diluted to one part in two.


Within the range of sake products on sale in Japan, only about one in ten is junmai-shu. In other words, almost all of these products contain added alcohol.


If you are looking to buy sake without this knowledge, there is not much chance that you will end up with junmai-shu, because most of the products you see will not be junmai-shu.


Low-cost futsū-shu (“ordinary sake”) occupies as much as 70% of market share. Most sake on the market contains additives including alcohol and sugar.


Many Japanese people are not particularly fond of sake, because it is seen as causing unpleasant aftereffects such as a hangover. However, this image problem comes from consumption of futsū-shu — sake that contains distilled alcohol and other additives.


Drinking genuine sake, the taste is refreshing and it complements a meal. One becomes aware that there is very little in the way of an unpleasant aftereffect. Drinking cheap futsū-shu and commenting on sake in general on that basis does a great deal of damage to the image of sake.


Selecting and drinking sake of decent quality, the difference is unmistakable. Buying sake cheaply is all very well, but it cannot be the basis for judging sake in general.

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