When Sake Gets Too Polished

Rice needs to be polished to make premium sake. But there’s an arms race going on, and American consumers have something to do with it, because unlike so much about sake, we can easily understand numbers.

Hollywood celebrities and Las Vegas high rollers are seeking out sakes with absurdly low polishing ratio numbers. It’s the same kind of shortcut to brag-worthy sake as the top of the 100-point scale for wine. You’re drinking a 23? Ha, I’m drinking a 15. Take that, sucker.

Just as with the Wine Advocate’s use of the 100-point scale, the more sake you drink, the more you realize that the ones with the most impressive numbers, in this case the lowest, aren’t necessarily the best.

rice polished to 20

Reaching lower

Every bottle of premium sake lists the polishing ratio on it as a percentage. The number actually means the amount of the inner core of the rice that remains. In other words, if a bottle says 35% polishing ratio (“seimaibuai” in Japanese), then 65% of each grain has been polished away. That 35, by the way, would be a very high-end sake, unusual to see in a restaurant in Japan, but disproportionately represented in the US market.

Even really cheap sake has some of the outer core of rice polished away for efficient brewing, because the starch in sake rice is concentrated in the center, but really cheap sake might have a ratio of 90%; why waste any rice?

yoshihiro naka
Premium sake starts at 70%. Yoshihiro Naka, factory director for Takara, says that the biggest leap in quality in sake is between 90 and 70, and he should know as Takara is one of the largest sake companies in the world and makes sake at all grades.

The definition of Ginjo sake is that it is polished to at least 60%. There are noticeable changes at this level; ginjo sake is usually lighter and more aromatic. Daiginjo means a sake that has been polished to at least 50%. Daiginjo literally means “big ginjo” and that’s a fair description of their relationship: they’re like ginjos, only more so.

The polishing method, incidentally, has barely changed in 400 years: the rice is fed through a stone milling wheel again and again until it gets as small as you want. In the 1600s brewery workers sat together on benches and turned the wheels with their feet. Now there’s a giant vertical silo with computer controls. But the wheel itself isn’t really that different.

In the past, even for the emperor, nobody kept turning that wheel with their feet to get the rice down below 30%. All rice but the sturdy Yamada Nishiki type is likely to crack open and have to be discarded, and even for Yamada Nishiki that risk increases as the number drops. Moreover, there comes a point where you can’t really tell the difference, so you’re just removing useful, saleable product.

But breweries are doing it anyway. Raifuku in Ibaraki prefecture is doing an 8% sake, which is kind of insane, but at the same time that sake is, for a certain crowd, the equivalent of a wine Robert Parker might rate 100+. That is, until some brewery decides to go to 7.

An interesting side effect of the arms race in low polishing ratios is the deification of Yamada Nishiki, the most-grown sake rice in Japan because of its productivity. There’s a movement in Japan toward using rice better suited to the local environment — a return to terroir. But it’s hampered somewhat by consumers mistakenly thinking Yamada Nishiki’s primary virtue is taste, not toughness.

Can you tell the difference?

kazuhiro sakurai
Kazuhiro Sakurai is vice-president of Dassai, which makes sakes named after their polishing ratios: Dassai 50, Dassai 39 and Dassai 23. His father took over a struggling brewery in a 200-person village that made every level of sake, as well as beer. He saved the business by deciding to make only daiginjo, an astonishing decision 20 years ago, but one that has worked out because Dassai has become associated with high quality, both in Tokyo and in sake-friendly bars in New York and LA.

Dassai makes great sake, to be sure, and Dassai 23 is clean, pretty, mild and easy to enjoy, with an orange blossom character and a gentle mouthfeel. It’s no wonder actresses like it, and I love the fact that high rollers in sake bars are pursuing elegance, not power.

That said, 23 is a startling number — I was stunned when I first saw it — and the main reason for its marketing success.

“We started going to 23% because it was the most we could do technologically at the time,” Sakurai says.

Now he’s working on going even lower, experimenting on a sake polished to 15%. I ask if he can really tell the difference.

“I can’t tell, but you can go to other breweries and they might say they can’t tell the difference between 50 and 23,” says the refreshingly candid Sakurai.

Part of his pursuit of the numbers is because Dassai is unusually export-focused. Sakurai currently exports 10% of its sake, with the US market his largest, and he wants it to increase to 50%. And in the US, we understand numbers.

Sakurai himself prefers the Dassai 39, which I found exuberantly fruity with more backbone on the midpalate than the 23. “It has the best balance of aroma and mouthfeel,” he says. “I’d be very happy with 100% of 23, it’s the most profitable.”

These ultra-low polishing ratio sakes remind me philosophically of 99-point Viños Expresivos. Instead of being ripened to excess, they’re polished to excess. This takes away most of their regional character. Ultra-low ratio sakes are more like each other, no matter where they’re from, than like other sakes made in the neighborhood.

It’s not that they’re bad sakes; quite the opposite. I drank the heck out of a bottle of Dassai 23 left on a table with 10 other sakes, and I’d do it again.

But if you’re the kind of person who prefers a vin de terroir to the 99 pointers, consider looking for a sake that’s just a little less polished.