There are many different types of Saké though only a limited amount are commonly available in the U.S., outside of a few specialty wine and Saké stores. The primary types are generally differentiated by their “seimai buai,” the percentage of the rice that remains after polishing. The smaller the percentage, generally the higher the quality or grade of the Saké.
These are the primary types of Saké, the ones you are most likely to see on store shelves.
Junmai: This type of Saké is made with only rice, water, koji and yeast. Junmai means “pure rice” as no alcohol has been added to it. A Junmai once was required to have a seimai buai of no higher than 70%, which means 30% of the rice grain has been polished away. That requirement is no longer applicable. The label simply need to indicate the amount of polishing. A Junmai is typically full-bodied and slightly acidic.
Honjozo: This type of Saké has a small amount of brewer's alcohol added to it. It is rarer than Junmai in the U.S. Like a Junmai, a Honjozo must have a seimai buai of no higher than 70%. Honjozo is slightly lighter than Junmai and can be served at room temperature or warmed. All American produced Saké must be Junmai as it is illegal in this country to produce Honjozo.
Tokubetsu: This is “special” Saké and can be either a Junmai or Honjozo. It may indicate a higher than average amount of rice polishing, the use of high quality rice, or some other special method of production. There are no specific regulations as to what the "special" aspect must be.
Ginjo: This Saké, which may also be either Junmai or Honjozo, have at least 40% of the rice grain polished away. A Ginjo is generally lighter, more fragrant and complex. Junmai Ginjo is generally my favorite, every-day drinking Saké. It is a nice balance between the full bodied flavor of many Junmai and the delicate Daiginjo.
Daiginjo: This is the highest grade of Saké and the rice grain must have at least 50% of the rice grain polished away. As much as 65% of the rice grain may be polished away. A Daiginjo is commonly lighter, more fragrant, delicate, and fruitier. These are the most expensive of all Saké.
Futsu-shu: Any Saké that does not meet any of the above qualifications is known as “futsu-shu” or normal Saké.
There are other types of Saké that are less common, but might be found in some of the better wine or Saké stores. Some of these Saké may also meet the qualifications outlined above. Here is a sampling of these other varities of Saké though note that this is not a complete list.
Akai Saké: A rare red-colored Saké that is made with a special Koji that imparts the red color. I have never had this yet.
Arabashiri: This Saké is made from some of the first Saké to come out of the presses. It sees no storage time. It is a bit more full and lively than the later part of the pressing. I have had this a couple times before and enjoyed it.
Genshu: This is Saké that has not been diluted with water so it remains at a higher alcohol level, around 20%. It is a more brash Saké, without the subtleties of other Saké. I have not had this before.
Infused Saké: This type of Saké is infused with fruit flavors and is more common in the U.S. Some of the fruit flavors include Asian Pear, Yuzu, Coconut Lemongrass, and Raspberry. This type of Saké usually has a sweeter flavor to it. I think this type of Saké is very good for making cocktails.
Jizake: This is Saké made in a small brewery, akin to a microbrewery. Any type of Saké can be a Jizake. The term only refers to where the Saké was made and has nothing to do with quality. Though many feel that such small breweries do generally craft quality Saké. I have had some excellent Jizake and then a few have been so-so.
Kinpaku-iri: This is Saké with gold flakes added to it. The flakes do not add or detract from the flavor. This is a rare practice and it mainly adds only to the price. Think of
Goldschläger, the cinnamon schnapps, which also has gold flakes in it. I have not had this before.
Koshu: This is aged Saké, which is not common. It may be aged as much as ten years. It commonly has a strong, earthy and astrigent flavor though it can also be smoky and rich. I do not like this type of Saké. It actually reminds me of some young Ports.
Namazake: This is Saké that has not been pasteurized. There is a fresh, appealing tinge to the fragrance and flavor. Sometimes it is referred to as draft Saké. You should drink this Saké very soon after you buy it as it won’t last long, no more than a few months. There is also Namachozo and Namazume which are pasteurized only once, at different points in the process. Namazake can be quite excellent and I usually get some in the spring, upon their release.
Nigori: This Saké has only been partially filtered and still has some rice and koji rice in the bottle. This gives it a cloudy, milky look. It is usually sweet and can be almost chewy to the taste. It may be served as a dessert wine. I am not a big fan of Nigori.
Organic Saké: A small amount of breweries make organic Saké. One such brewery is Yuki no Bosha, and their Saké is available in the U.S. I have had their Saké and found them to be very good.
Shinshu: This is new Saké, akin to a Beaujolais Nouveau. It is not aged at all and is released after fermentation is complete. It has a fresh and brash flavor. I have not had this before.
Sparkling Saké: This Saké undergoes a secondary fermentation which gives it tiny bubbles, a light effervescence. Its alcohol content is usually much less than regular Saké. Sparkling Saké also tends to be a bit sweeter than regular Saké. I enjoy Sparkling Saké and find it a fun alternative.
Taru: This Saké has been aged in cypress barrels. This can obscure some of the more delicate flavors though it adds certain a woody aroma and taste.