The Ultimate Guide to Sake Grades and Types

April 28, 2023

In a recent article, we talked about the various vessels that are typically used for serving and drinking sake. Today we’re going to talk about what we put into these bottles—the sake itself.

Like any type of alcoholic beverage, sake comes in all kinds of types and grades, from cheap and cheerful table varieties to premium brews that command a higher price due to the superior quality of the product. Outside of the grading system, there are different styles of sake, too, each of which has its own unique attributes and distinct flavour profile.

In this article, we’re going to discuss some of the various types of sake and take a look at the detailed grading system employed by the Japanese sake industry. Hopefully, this will help you distinguish between different varieties as you explore the extensive selection of sake brands available.

Grading Japanese Sake

Sake is graded by the quality of the ingredients used in the brewing process—specifically the rice. The rice used for making sake needs to be milled and polished to remove as much of the husk as possible while leaving the starchy, glutinous core that aids in the fermentation process. As a general rule of thumb, the more polished the rice, the better the sake, and the grading system reflects this.

The grades are as follows:



This is commonly known as table sake or ‘normal’ sake and a non-premium drink made using rice with less than 30% of the hull removed. Traditionally, this made up the bulk of sake sales around the world, but many consumers are now choosing the more premium brews instead.


Tokutei Meishousu

This is a catch-all term for premium sakes where 30% or more of the hull has been polished away. Also referred to as 'special designation sake', there are further sub-grades included in this designation.



This is the lowest of the tokutei meishousu sakes, with between 30% and 40% of hull removed from the rice. Also known as second-grade sake. Of course, the term ‘lowest’ is entirely subjective. These are still premium sakes, with many having delicate, savoury flavour notes rather than the fruitier tastes of higher-grade sakes.



This refers to first-grade premium sakes, where the rice has been polished anywhere from 40% onwards. This usually indicates the very best in sakes, being flavourful and aromatic, and often requiring specialist techniques to get this much-valued designation. Jousen sake can be further split into two other grades, Ginjo and Daiginjo.



Ginjo sake (also known as ginjōshu) uses rice with a minimum of 40% milled away during the polishing process. It is considered a first-grade premium sake and is brewed slowly at very low temperatures. The resulting flavours are delicate, fruity, and floral, with plenty of aroma.



Perhaps the most premium sake on the market, daiginjo is often one of the most expensive due to its elaborate brewing process. Not only does the rice need to have more than 50% of its hull removed, but the koji rice used for fermentation must be entirely handcrafted. The resulting brew has flavours that are both delicate and complex, with a variety of fragrant aromas to entice the palate.



This means ‘special grade’ which is a somewhat ambiguous term usually applied to honjozo or junmai sake. What makes special grade special? It depends on the manufacturer. Sometimes it means it’s made with rice with a minimum of 40% husk removed. Sometimes that means it’s made using a special type of rice cultivated for brewing sake. Sometimes it can mean something else entirely, so long as it differentiates itself from other premium sakes. Whatever the distinction, the reason for its ‘special’ grading should be detailed on the bottle.

Types of Sake

Now that we understand the grading system for sake a little better, let’s take a look at the many different types of sake that are available. While sake grade refers to the amount of polishing undergone by the rice, these distinct varieties are categorised by their method of production. These are some of the most popular types of sake on the market:



You will normally see the word ‘junmai’ in front of the sake’s grade (for instance, it might say ‘junmai ginjōshu’). It translates as ‘no added alcohol’ meaning that only the core ingredients of koji, rice, and water were used in the brewing process.



‘genshu’ translates as ‘undiluted’ and appears on sake that has not been mixed with water prior to bottling. As a result of this, many genshu sakes have a higher alcohol content, usually levelling out around 17%–20%. That said, some brewers adopt a different method of brewing to produce genshu sake with lower alcohol levels while retaining the characteristic bold and intense flavours.



As you know, sake is traditionally brewed over multiple stages using water, rice, and koji. With kijoshu sakes, the water is replaced with sake during the third round of brewing. This produces a type of sake that is intensely flavoured and has a notable sweetness to it.



This is a term for sake that has been aged, either in bottles or tanks, usually at cold or freezing temperatures to prevent the product from deteriorating. The ageing process normally takes three to five years (although some can be aged for longer) and gives the sake a rich and earthy flavour that intensifies the longer it is left to age.



While many sakes are bottled directly following the brewing process, tarusake is stored and aged in a wooden cask, usually made from Japanese cedar. The wood imparts a richness of flavour to the sake, which is served at room temperature using square masu cups made from the same kind of wood. Check out our previous article for more information on these sake vessels.


Happo shu

This is a sparkling sake that is gaining popularity both in Japan and around the world. This carbonated sake is usually served chilled and is comparable to champagne, albeit with more complex flavour notes.



Once the final mash has been pressed, the resultant liquid sake is heated to pasteurise the drink before packaging. Namazake forgoes this step, creating a light and fresh sake with a typically fruity aroma that is best served chilled.



While many sakes are repeatedly filtered to produce a clear and colourless liquid, nigorisake has the mash pressed through a simple mesh filter. This results in a white, cloudy sake with a strong, earthy aftertaste.

In the coming months, we will be introducing a new range of premium sake that will delight the taste buds of every customer, whether you’re new to the drink or an experienced expert. While you wait, why not try some of our excellent range of sakes, direct from the SushiSushi online store?


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