Honjozo is a style of sake made for those who love to drink (like me!). It tends to be crisp, dry, and you can drink a lot of it in one sitting (so be careful). Unlike some junmais, there are no overly-cloying, fruity, floral elements here (these are fighting words!). Best enjoyed with some nibbles – chilled, or better room temperature or warmed up – honjozos are easy to drink and a stellar reward after a hard day’s work.
Junmai is often considered “pure rice sake” because it only consists of four ingredients: koji, water, yeast, and rice. For honjozos, one additional ingredient is added to this: pure distilled alcohol (aka ethyl alcohol). When this method was developed during war-time Japan, it was primarily due to the rice shortage, as well as to better stabilize and preserve sake.
Today, the honjozo style continues to be popular for brewers and sake lovers. Only a tiny bit of distilled alcohol is added to the sake (right before the first press) for several reasons. Many brewers believe that the addition of the distilled alcohol brings out more fragrance and rounds out the flavors of the sake. Drinkers believe that the lighter style makes it more drinkable than its junmai counterparts (hotly disputed).
Sake traditionalists may think that junmai is the superior form of sake, but don’t be fooled – honjozos are considered premium sakes, just like junmai, as the rice polishing must be at least 70%. The sakes I have chosen for this month are all at least 60% (one is 40%!). I’ll admit that junmais may be more complex and lively than honjozos, but I do hope that my selections open your eyes to this palette-pleasing category.
Happy Holy Honjozo Month!
LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)
Asabiraki Namacho Honjozo
Asabiraki Brewery (Iwate, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60%, SMV +3
This is a really fun sake! It’s a nama, so pasteurized once after bottling, with a Starburst candy scent and clean mouthfeel. The ending is smooth and dry. Enjoy Asabiraki with tomato salad, hiyayakko (cold tofu), and shiokara (fermented squid, my fave). Throw it in the fridge till it’s ice cold and enjoy straight out of the bottle! As it warms up, you’ll notice that Asabiraki exhibits pleasant acidic notes, which is typical of honjozos.
Takatenjin Sword of the Sun Tokubetsu Honjozo
Doi Brewery (Shizuoka, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki + Haenuki 60%, SMV +4
As we learned from Yoko Sensei in July, tokubetsu means “special” in Japanese. These are sakes that brewers want to highlight from their usual lineup of sakes, usually junmais or honjozos. This tokubetsu honjozo is by one of my favorite breweries, Doi, who make sakes that are bright and refined. The Sword of the Sun has a nostalgic cream soda scent, with a juicy, tropical, full mouthfeel. The sharp ending is weighty, with an alcoholic kick. Pair with salads like sunomono (vinegared cucumber) or funky cheeses. This bottle is especially tokubetsu for Level 1 members because this 300ml size was previously unavailable in California until now.
LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)
Gasanryu Gokugetsu “Extreme Moon” Junmai Daiginjo
Shindo Brewery (Yamagata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Dewasansan 40%, SMV +1
This month I chose one label, Gasanryu, for both Level 2 bottles to demonstrate the vast difference between a junmai daiginjo and a daiginjo.* Shindo Brewery makes excellent sakes, with their estate grown Dewasansan rice. Extreme Moon is a textbook junmai daiginjo – lactic and coconutty, with a hint of grapey, acidic notes. The expansive body is what Yoko refers to as “bass tones!” Enjoy chilled with Manchego cheese, salumi, and tomato-rich dishes.
Gasanryu Kisaragi “Pliant Moon” Daiginjo
Shindo Brewery (Yamagata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Dewasansan 50%, SMV +3
While Gasanryu does make some junmai sakes, it primarily specializes in honjozos. I asked a Shindo Brewery staff member why they make so many different kinds of honjozos, and she said because it draws out the fragrance of the sake, and cuts the aftertaste sharply. Pliant Moon daiginjo exhibits this well, and you’ll get sake lees on the nose, as well as citrus peel. Juicy green melons dominate the flavor profile. Try it cold with poke or Japanify’s hiyashi chuka (ramen salad).
*If you see “daiginjo” or “ginjo” without “junmai” before it, it is made in the honjozo style.