Rice Polishing: How Low Can You Go?


Three years ago, I walked into a bar and drank a sake that changed everything for me. Until then I’d understood that there was a direct correlation between how much a brewer polishes his rice and how good the resulting sake will be. Premium sake? That’s the stuff made from rice that’s had 50% polished away, or is it?

Sake had never spoken to me in my first 10 years of living in Japan. I’d had it on numerous occasions but it never stood out as a serious alternative to wine or beer. I had this view that the flavour profile was pretty narrow and boy was I wrong.

Musubi, a sake which resembles more of a sour beer changed everything for me. Made from 100% unpolished rice i.e. brown rice, some would say that my epiphany was not warranted since Musubi is nothing like a sake. And I would agree. But it showed me how wide the favour profile of sake can be, that there must be everything in between and to approach rice polishing ratios with caution.

Before rice is fermented, it goes through a process of polishing and the brewer chooses how much to polish off based on his end goal. Sake made with very roughly polished rice, say 90% remaining, runs the risk of having off-flavours and shaving off the outer portion of the rice mitigates this risk by removing arguably the impurities.

Polishing rates are part of what defines premium sake. Up to 70% remaining is classified as Junmai, up to 60% Ginjo, and up to 50% Daiginjo. The vertical polishing machine, introduced in the 1930s, allows brewers to work with polished rice well beyond the 90% remaining of traditional mills. This has helped widen the variety of sake that we now have today and has also led to the birth of highly polished sake as well as new terminology for describing and categorising sake. 

So do any brewers work with rice polished beyond 50%?

Asahi Shuzo in Yamaguchi prefecture, brewers of the well-known Dassai brand in Yamaguchi prefecture turned around a faltering company back in 1992 by brewing sake with a record-breaking at the time of 23%. 

In 2017 Tatenokawa, the brewery located in Yamagata prefecture achieved 1% polishing ratio remaining with 99% of the rice NOT going into the tank to be fermented. It took 1800 hours, around 2.5 months of non-stop polishing and went on sale priced at around $1000 for a 720ml bottle with only 150 bottles produced.

Judging by the price of sake made with highly polished rice, you’d think that they’re superior in quality. Is Daiginjo really better than Junmai like everyone keeps saying?

Ginjo is often put into the spotlight and defined as premium with Junmai being mistakenly labelled as an inferior product. Contrary to popular belief, the higher the polishing ratio, i.e. more shaved off does not equate to higher quality sake, it’s simply one choice of many available to brewers and an indication of the style. 

But why are they so expensive?

One of the main reasons for the high prices of Ginjo is that you simply need more rice since more is shaved away. Additionally, brewers often choose to work with expensive rice types when using highly polished rice. Other reasons include slower and more time-consuming drip pressing which has to be done by hand, and maybe marketing.  

Keep in mind that the rice polishing ratio and its associated categorisation does have it limits! There can be more work involved in producing a sake made from highly polished rice but it doesn’t equate to premium. Junmai is premium sake just like Daiginjo. 

Musubi, the sake that got me into this industry, uses brown rice, is fermented naturally with the brewer’s ambient yeasts, has no additives or lactic acid additions and is not charcoal filtered. Surely this is nearer to the definition of premium sake – nothing added, nothing taken away.

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