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From ginjo to junmai: say no to ginjo snobbism

I think we should coin a term “ginjo snobbism” and add to the list of existing myths about sake. John Gauntner mentioned it in both of his books and other people were also talking about it at sake events. So what is it? Basically, it’s a myth that only ginjo sake is worth drinking. And by ginjo, I mean all kinds of super premium sake: ginjo, daiginjo, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. Another misconception is that many people don’t realise that honjozo and junmai sake are also in the premium category. 

I fell victim of this myth myself. My proper introduction into sake happened at the IWC tasting of award-winning sake. As it was a trophy event, most of the presented sake were premium and super-premium. I liked many of them and decided that anything else was not worth my attention. For a few months after the event, whenever I was buying or ordering sake, I only asked for junmai ginjo or daiginjo. However, with more sake I tried, my attitude gradually started to change. First, I got curious about other types of sake. Then there were books about sake I was reading: John Gauntner, Philip Harper, some others. They all were talking about all types of sake including junmai, honjozo and futsushu. 

Excellent futsushu at teh BSA Grand Christmas Sake tasting

However, the breakthrough came when I did the Kikisake-she course a few months back. (I have written about the course here and here.) We did quite a lot of blind tasting during the course and had to describe the sake in our tasting notes. As you don’t have any preconception, you assess the taste of the sake on its merits rather on its designation. Also the more sake you try, the better your perception of it becomes. I started noticing the nuances of flavours, depth of the taste, texture and aroma. Eventually, I have moved from “I like this sake” to “I like this sake because…” And this is a fascinating journey. I have to admit that I’m still learning a lot of new things which makes it even more breathtaking.  

So why people become ginjo snobs? I think it is all but natural. There are still only a few opportunities to try sake outside Japan. Very often the first sake many people have is a warm unbalance cheap sake at a local Japanese restaurant. The chances are it probably put you off drinking sake for long. Then someone could introduce you to ginjo sake and you would say: “Oh, it’s actually pretty good. Why haven’t I tried it before? I’m not going to touch this cheap stuff again in my life!”

Nigori sake and sushi is another popular combination, especially in the US. You might like it and keep ordering nigori every time because it’s just what sake is for you. Then, someone might persuade you to try ginjo sake and you liked it. But you are not that interested to try something else. In my case, I have started with ginjo and thought that it’s the best stuff and I don’t need anything else. 

The price is often, and quite rightly, the indicator of quality. I remember I was flying back from Japan and decided to buy a bottle of sake at the Duty-Free. Since I did not know anything about sake that time, I just bought something expensive. Probably not top of the range but definitely in the premium category. It was Hakutsuru daiginjo sake, relatively dry and clean as I remember.

komachi sakura
Great Komachi Sakura sake from Gifu Prefecture

But it does not mean that only expensive things are good. In recent months I tried many very good but not particularly expensive sake. You can read my posts not only about the Kikisake-shi course but also about JFC Sake Expo (Part 1 and Part 2), Tosa Sake Fair and Oyster x Sake. Only this week I was treated with the excellent futsushu Komachi Sakura sake from the Watanabe Brewery at Gifu Prefecture. I have heard and read for several times that many brewers are not that interested in denominations and grades. They just want to make great sake. They have amazing ingredients: rice and water and want to bring the best of them out. Even when they make futsushu, a simple no fuss table sake, they put their hearts into it. 

So the point of this post is to encourage you to try something new. If you stick to ginjo, try honjozo or junmai. You might even try futsushu, table sake, and find it great. There are many sake tasting events this time of the year, so keep seeking and you will find! Again, I will try to put on my Events page as many events as I come across, so please keep an eye on it!  



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.

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