Junmai Myths and Truths

Junmai sake, made with rice, rice koji, and water alone (except for yeasts, and the added lactic acid for sokujo. Oh, and also some flavor adjusting enzymes in some cases.) is all the rage with sake drinkers both in and out side of Japan. People like it because they feel it has tradition, because it is “the true heart of sake,” and because that word “jun” means pure, and man, people sure do like purity. At times, the focus on junmai seems to approach an ideology, rather than a brewing style choice. I’m sure in the bad old days, the opposite was true–sake brewers still talk about opposition to junmai from older generations. Those days, of course, are gone. Everyone makes junmai sake now. No one says that it’s too rich or acidic anymore. Junmai brewing is totally mainstream, and not some oppressed minor part of the industry. The junmai ideology, however, still has fierce adherents.

But the thing is, many of the things people say about junmai aren’t factually true. Junmai as a legal term is a recent phenomenon (dating to the establishment of the tokuteimeishoshu “special designated sake” system in 1989), and as it took hold of the craft sake scene it became something of a buzzword, used as much to create a narrative as to create new sake flavor. Considering that there are 1,200 or so breweries in Japan, and the market continues to shrink, I can understand the urge to try to stand apart by creating a compelling narrative. The sad thing is, though, that many of the myths that flavor these narratives are being preached as a deep, vital truth, to the disparagement of those MANY MANY MANY breweries that still make aruten (distilled alcohol added) sake.

So, let’s do some record-straightening, shall we?

Myth 1: Prior to World War II, all sake was junmai, with no alcohol added.
Sadly, this, the biggest argument of all used by those who preach junmai as an ideology rather than as another way of making sake, is simply not true. The practice of adding distilled alcohol to sake dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868). The addition of alcohol to adjust the flavor of brewed sake would have started some time after the introduction of distillation to mainland Japan sometime in the 1500s, though we can’t be exactly sure when. We do know it was called hashira-zukuri (柱造り) or hashira shochu (柱焼酎). In Kato Hyakuichi’s book 5000 Years of Liquor in Japan (日本の酒5000年), he says first mention of it was in the 童蒙酒造記 Domoshuzoki, a record of sake making written around 1605. The fourth section, all about sake brewing in the Itan area of current day Hyogo, describes it being used as a method to lighten flavor, fortify the drinker, and prolong shelf life (風味を酒「シャン」として足強) (p. 213). At any rate, the practice is several centuries older than, say, glass bottles.

According to Sake: The Essence of 2000 Years of Japanese Wisdom Gained from Brewing Alcoholic Beverages from Rice by Hiroichi Akiyama, the practice died off in the Meiji era (1868-1912), but was revived in 1939 (p. 170), meaning that it lasted over 260 years, but was out of practice for a maximum of only 71 (we don’t know exactly when the practice died off). Of course, soon after the 1939 rebirth, the process was adapted into the wartime practice of adding massive amounts of alcohol, which leads us to our next myth…

Myth 2: Futsushu is sanzoshu, and that’s bad
This one is pretty easy to debunk, as sanzoshu doesn’t really exist any more–by law–but I guess a little nuance might be called for.

So, a history lesson. Sanzoshu literally means “tripled sake.” It is a style that originated during World War II as a way to maintain sake production, and its tax income, during wartime rice rationing. Sake makers were actually legally required to add massive amounts of distilled alcohol to their brews to increase volume. Then, to make it taste like sake they would add sweeteners and flavorings, and finally water it back down to drinkable levels of alcohol. It was not good, but people drank it. It lasted well after the war ended.

Junmai sake as a brewing style was basically forgotten by a generation of sake brewers until 1964, when the first commercial junmai sake was made available. Soon others followed, and a trend toward junmai went into full swing. The writing was on the wall, and in 2006 the government created a new regulation that said no sake could add more than 50% alcohol by weight of rice used–and full-on tripled sanzoshu was no longer legally possible.

A 2012 government survey showed that the average added alcohol amount was 45% by weight. Considering the other additives and watering, then, this would make that sake nizoshu, which is DOUBLED, not tripled. It still has lots of alcohol and added sweeteners and such, is usually pretty bad for your head, and is also pretty rarely made by any but the biggest alcoholic beverage makers. Yes, yes, it might be splitting hairs, but the reality is actually even more complicated than that.

Essentially, futsushu is now a catch-all term that covers five kinds of sake:

  • Junmai shu that cannot be sold as junmai for some reason. Usually the rice used is not certified highly enough to qualify for the tokuteimeshoshu labeling. (not nizoshu)
  • Sake with added alcohol above the honjozo limit, which is 10% by weight of the total weight of sake rice used (or conceivably added-alcohol sake made with a seimaibuai rate of greater than 70%?). The brewer limits the amount of alcohol they add so they don’t have to flavor it to make it taste like sake. (not nizoshu)
  • Sake with added alcohol and added sweeteners (nizoshu)
  • Sake with added alcohol, added sweeteners, and added amino acid flavor elements (nizoshu)
  • Sake with added alcohol, added sweeteners, added amino acids, and added acidic flavor elements (nizoshu)

The first two are always worth trying. The last three are less so (those sweeteners are not good for anyone). But note that only two of those are actually nizoshu, and plenty of futsushu is excellent sake.

Myth 3: Aruten sake is a cheat/bad/impure/a remnant of sanzoshu.
This is just ridiculous, and borders on slander. Aruten sake, like the daiginjo that nearly every sake brewery in Japan sends to its awards shows every year, is not only a return to the tradition of using distilled alcohol to lighten flavors and bring out aromatics, it is also demonstrably GOOD SAKE. I have a bottle of aruten daiginjo in my fridge that is simply one of the most delicious sakes I’ve ever had.

I asked Sumikawa Takafumi, brewer of massively popular and delicious Toyobijin, why he wasn’t going junmai-only, and he said “I can add up to 400 liters of alcohol to a tank. Taken at one liter increments, that’s 400 different ways I can change the flavor and aroma of a sake. Why would I take those options away from myself?” Good question.

Myth 4: Junmai is true sake, and adding anything is straying from the path.
This is, of course, the ideology in a nutshell. I think that it’s basically weird and irrational. Sake became what it is during the Edo period, and that is when aruten was invented. Throughout its 2,000 years of history sake has evolved and adapted, and many brewing techniques have been born, disappear, and sometimes reappear. Bodaimoto disappeared and returned. Wood-ash moto has all but disappeared. Kimoto was the only starter method used for centuries, then yamahai and sokujo replaced it, and now it’s on a resurgence.

All of these are “true” sake, and none “the” true sake. Sake is a beverage brewed from rice with the help of koji, yeast, and a whole lot of other things. One of those things, for hundreds of years, has been distilled alcohol. Why on earth would that not be true sake? If there is a path to stray from, who strayed, and when? Was it the invention of kimoto? The end of religious monopoly on sake brewing? The invention of the rice milling machine? Refrigerators allowing nama sake to become mainstream? It’s an emotionally appealing, but ultimately utterly baseless, claim.

Myth 5: Sake brewery X is the true pioneer of junmai sake!
This one might not actually be a myth, depending on which sake brewery you are talking about. So, as discussed above, the first post war junmai sake was made available in 1964, by Kyoto brewery Tama no Hikari Shuzo. It was sold as 無添加清酒, additive free sake. In 1967, Chiyonosono Brewery in Kumamoto also released one, and researcher Uehara Hiroshi (founder of Sake Service Institute) led several Tottori breweries in brewing their own. In 1971, Kamoizumi Started brewing Junmai under the name Honjikomi Kamoizumi, and they went on to found the Japan Junmaishu Association in 1973 to study and propagate best practices in brewing with a few other breweries including Chiyonosono, and Tama no Hikari. The current membership can be found here: Japan Junmaishu Association

I think those are your junmai pioneers. Tama no Hikari, Chiyonosono, Kamoizumi, and the breweries in Tottori that Uehara worked with. Others, well… It makes for a good story, I guess.

The way I view it, adding alcohol or not is a choice the toji is free to make, akin to an artist deciding between black and white, or color. Both are valid, and both are beautiful. People can decide that they like junmai for the richer flavors, or for the romance, or whatever. De gustibus non est disputandum. But before people let themselves be swayed by a nice story or a “compelling narrative,” they should ask critically if what they’re hearing is true, and if it actually matters when it comes to what’s in the bottle.

As for me, I’ll be in the corner with a bottle of Gokyo futsushu, enjoying life too much to worry about ideology.

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