A Beginner's Guide to Sake

by Gyeongyeong Kim

Just like how people make drinks with barley and grapes, Japan has traditionally been making rice wine, sake, for centuries. And today, we’re going to learn about sake!

In English, “sake” refers to Japanese traditional rice wine. But in Japanese, sake refers to any alcoholic beverage. In Japan, nihonshu or seishu is the more specific way to call Japanese rice wine.

Sake can be served either cold or warm which makes it loved by so many people in Japan all year around. So let’s dive into what sake is!


How Sake is Made

Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic drink that originated in the 8th century and is made by fermenting polished rice. Unlike wine that uses sugar and yeast to make alcohol and carbon dioxide through the fermentation, sake ferments polished rice, koji (rice mold critical to making sake, miso, and soy sauce) and water to turn the grains into starch then to sugar.

The quality of rice, koji and water are therefore very important to make delicious sake. Rice that is used in sake-making is usually bigger, hardier than rice people eat and is polished to remove the bran. Water not only removes odor and yellow color in sake, but it also helps sake to taste richer thanks to its mineral content.

Depending on how the three main components of sake (rice, water, and koji) are processed and combined, brewers can produce beautiful varieties of sake from cloudy nigori sake to aromatically dry sake to sweet sparkling sake!

Lastly, the makers can pour extra water in the bottle to modify alcohol content and can also add extra fragrance or sugar to make it more delicious.

Types of Sake

Sake has three big categories that classify types of sake. One of them is based on the brewing process. Some well-known examples are Kimoto-sake, which is made using finer and richer yeast starter; Nama-sake, which is unpasteurized sake; and go-shu, which is aged sake.

Other category is based on the ingredients of sake. If your sake bottle says Junmai in the name, such as junmaishu (junmai sake), junmai-daiginjo or junmai-ginjo, it means your sake is made only with rice, without adding extra alcohol. That being said, you can taste richer rice flavor in junmai sake.

Honjozo sake is also made with standard brewing methods just like junmai sake does. But, the makers can add alcohol in Honjozo sake (although there is a limit to the amount of alcohol makers can add).

Futsushu is the most commonly consumed sake in Japan. It does not have a specific brewing or milling rate policy for making Futsushu, so the makers can have a lot of freedom making their own style of sake.

Lastly, sake is also categorized according to the milling rate of rice. Unlike “normal” sake futsushu, premium sake has to follow a strict milling rate of the Liquor Business Trade Union laws. Premium sake has to have high content of rice and rice mold and has to be made using high quality rice. Based on the milling rate, premium sake is categorized into 8 different types of sake according to how it is made, what is in it and milling rate.

Although it is unnecessary to memorize all 8 types of premium sake, it is useful to know the following three big categories of premium sake.

  • Daiginjo sake: polishing 70% of the rice, the highest grade of sake
  • Ginjo: polishing 50%
  • Honjozo: polishing 30%

Therefore, if your sake says junmai-daiginjo, it means your sake is made only with rice that is polished to 70%. The higher the polishing rate, the higher the quality of sake is.

How to Read a Label

If you are still not sure how to choose the right bottle for you, you can check the label in the back of the bottle. In the label, it not only shows you how to store the bottle properly, but it also explains to you the perfect temperature to consume sake and the tasting characteristics of that sake. Which means, you can get a general idea of how that bottle of sake is going to taste by reading the label.

  • Sake-do: tells you how sweet and bitter sake is. If the number is positive, it is more likely to taste bitter and if the number is negative, it’s going to taste sweeter.
  • Acidity: tells you how sour sake is. Although sake should taste sour as the number increases more than 1.4, there is no big difference in terms of taste.
  • Amino acid degree: the indicator for the amount of amino acid in sake. If the number is higher than 1.4, sake is rich and full-bodied, and if the number goes below 1.4, it is light-bodied and tastes clean.

Types of Sake Glasses

Using champagne glass for sparkling wine and pinot noir glass for light-bodied red wine enhances the experience of drinking wine. The same goes for sake. Since sake has a wide variety and can be served at different temperatures, using the right type of sake glass can make your sake more delicious.

  • Masu: traditional sake glass made with hinoki or cedar wood. It adds a woody and clean scent to your sake. It can be a container for another sake glass for over-pouring to create a waterfall-like effect or it can be a glass itself.
  • Ochoko: a small ceramic glass. It is good for both cold and warm sake. It allows air flow into the sake, which enhances the flavor of sake. It is usually served with dokuri, a pottery bottle.
  • Trumpet: has a wide lip. It is good for floral and fruity sake since the wide lip makes it easier for people to smell it.
  • Reishu: small, transparent glass. It is good for aged sake so you can admire the golden color.
  • Hirezake: big sake glass. It is especially designed for hirezake sake which is hot sake with a blowfish fin in it.

How to Drink Sake

If you’re confused how to prepare your sake, check the label on the back of the bottle to find out what temperature is the best to consume. If it’s better to be served hot, make sure to prepare thick or pottery/wooden cups so that it is easier to hold the glass.

Traditionally, you can’t pour sake into your own glass, so make sure to check other people’s glass to see if the glass is empty or not.

Most importantly, it is important to drink your sake with food that goes well with the bottle so that you can enjoy it at the best circumstance. So do serve with delicious snacks of your preference!

If you’re still confused to choose the right sake for you, take the quiz below to find your perfect sake!

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