Classification of Sake in the Liquor Tax Act (日本酒級別制度)

Classification of Sake in the Liquor Tax Act is a general classification system of sake under the Liquor Tax Act, which long existed in Japan from 1940 to 1992.

Introduction of the system

When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, the supply of rice and sake to be sent to soldiers at war created chaos in the rice market. Accordingly, sake made from rice turned into something disorderly, resulting in widespread of yami zake (illegal sake) or diluted sake such as Kingyoshu (a type of diluted sake described cynically because it is weak enough to let gold fish live in) which was produced by adding water to increase the volume. In 1940, the government conducted an audit of sake distributed in the market to classify as 'Special class,' 'First class,' 'Second class,' 'Third class,' 'Fourth class,' and 'Fifth class,' based on alcohol content and quality of sake for the purpose of the reconstruction of sake market. The labeling based on this classification played a role as a certificate for the commercial distribution of sake products.

Transition of the system

As the outbreak of the Pacific War accelerated the rice shortage, a liquor rationing system was introduced in 1943. After Japan was defeated in World War II, the rationing system was abolished and the liberalization of alcohol sales was initiated in 1949. Later, the classification system was practically stabilized into three categories: 'Special class,' 'First class,' and 'Second class,' in each of which the tax rate to be imposed on sake was determined.

However, more and more people started questioning this system for the reason that the classification and taxation system based on alcohol content did not correspond to the quality evaluation of sake.
Some sake brewers daringly refused to be bound by the government appraisal and classification system, and distributed sake as a type of good that was 'exempt from appraisal.'

End of the system

In response to growing criticism, the government began to seek other quality-focused classification system to replace the Classification of Sake in the Liquor Tax Act, and in 1990, introduced a new sake classification composed of nine different class names such as 'Futsushu (standard sake)' and 'Tokutei meishoshu (special designation sake),' which was tentatively utilized in combination with the traditional classification system in the earliest years.

During this transition period, consumers were greatly confused by the collapse of the traditional selection standard, and under the original standard introduced by sake brewers, the new class names, 'tokusen (specially selected),' 'josen (highly selected),' and 'kasen (honorably selected),' which were equivalent for the old class names, 'Special class,' 'First class,' and 'Second class,' respectively, appeared and widespread. As of 2006, there were still so many sake brands remaining with those class names on the label. In contrast to the classification system based on alcohol content, the current classification based on the specific class names can be regarded as a guarantee of a certain level of quality under its classification standard; however, it cannot prevent brews which are not processed for optional application from being distributed as lower grade of special designation sake.

Since the new classification system was considered to have gradually widespread among consumers in general, the Classification of Sake in the Liquor Tax Act was completely abolished in 1992.

As compared with the time when the old classification system was still effective, the optional entries such as brand name of the rice and area of production based on the standard that regulates the method of manufacturing and quality labeling of refined sake issued by the National Tax Administration Agency, as well as various information on the rice-polishing ratio, preparation method, and bottling method, are nowadays listed on the label in order for consumers to evaluate the product information and select their product on their own. Although this goes with the times of information disclosure, if consumers are not familiar with sake to an extent, they will never be able to decipher the information and understand what type of sake it is; some people eventually point out that this is one of the factors associated with consumers' withdrawal from sake.