It’s no secret that I adore Japan, Japanese food and Japanese culture, and that I’m always dreaming of my next trip to Japan! Sake is one element of Japan’s food and drink that is both fascinating and delicious. It’s a drink I’ve been learning about for several years and I’ve come to really appreciate it. I seek out new sakes whenever I can. In this post, I share my comprehensive guide to sake.
What is Sake? | How is Sake made? | How is Sake Classified? | The Different Types of Sake | How to Drink Sake! | Pairing Sake With Food | Vessels Used to Serve Sake | The History of Sake | Sake in Japanese Culture
What is Sake?
Made from rice, sake is a traditional Japanese alcohol with a history going back at least two thousand years, and is firmly embedded in the culture and cuisine of Japan. A specific type of mould is used to turn the rice starches into sugar, and sake yeast ferments those sugars into alcohol.
There are many things that affect the finished flavour, style and type of sake—from the variety of rice used and how much it is polished (more on that below), to the strains of mould and yeast used, to how the sake is finished (is it filtered or not, is it pasteurised, is it strengthened with the addition of brewers alcohol or diluted with water, is it still or sparkling, is it fresh or has it been aged).
Most commonly, sake is bottled and sold at an ABV of 15%. The classic type is clear, and without any colour.
In Japanese, the word sake (酒) can refer to any alcoholic drink. The drink we refer to as sake in English is commonly known as nihonshu (日本酒) in Japanese. We use the term sake throughout this guide.
How is Sake made?
- Although sometimes described as ‘rice wine’, that’s not an accurate reflection of the production process. Let’s look at how sake manufacture differs from the production of beer and wine.
- To make wine, yeast is added to fruit to ferment the naturally present fruit sugars into alcohol. To make beer, barley (or other cereal grain) is malted (essentially, a controlled germination) to convert starches to sugar, before yeast is then added to ferment the sugar into alcohol.
- In sake production, koji (麹, Aspergillus oryzae mould) and shubo (酒母, sake yeast, also known as moto, usually a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae) are added to rice together—the koji converting starches to sugar, and the yeast fermenting it into alcohol.
Rice used for sake making is different to the varieties we usually eat. The grains are large and soft, with a lower protein content than table rice. At the centre of each grain of rice is a white milky core known as shimpaku (心白), high in starch and therefore perfect for making sake. The brown outer surface of the rice (bran) is polished away to reveal the shimpaku. As the unwanted protein, fats and lipids in rice are mainly in the bran, one of the key quality indicators of sake relates to the percentage of rice polished away. The more the rice is polished away, the more expensive the costs become since the producer must buy and use far more rice to produce the same volume of alcohol.
Sake has been made in Japan for many, many hundreds of years, and is an integral part of Japanese culture and life. The origins of sake are hazy, but historical records tell us that a simple rice alcohol was being made in China by 500 BC, and likely in Japan within a few hundred years of this time. Known as kuchikami-zake in Japan, this crude rice wine was made by chewing grains of rice, and spitting them into a vat. There, the natural enzymes in saliva broke down the rice, and natural wild yeasts fermented it.
Koji mould was discovered and used in China by 300 BC; it was added to rice and soybeans to make a variety of food and drink. There is mention of Koji being used in Japan in 725 CE, but Japanese sake as we know it today dates from around 1000 CE, when controlled cultivation of koji for use in sake began. Even today, Most sake producers in Japan cultivate their own koji in-house. The most recent development was improved filtration that allowed brewers to create a clear finished product, in the mid 1500s.
Today, sake is made by polishing brown rice to reveal the white core, soaking and then steaming the polished rice. Koji and shobu are added and the rice left to ferment for a few days before water is added and the mix is moved into a moromi (諸味, mash tank). Here, more koji, shubo and water are added in multiple stages, and the sake mash ferments at 15-20 °C. It takes up to a month for the saccharification and fermentation process to reach the desired result, after which the mash is pressed to remove the solids.
The resulting liquid is usually filtered to remove more solids, though some types of sake are sold with some of the sake lees or sediment left in, for flavour and texture. Next comes pasteurisation (though some fresh sakes are sold unpasteurised).
Finally, most sake is aged in barrels for several months to allow the flavours to mellow a little, then diluted with water. For some sakes, brewer’s alcohol is added to increase the ABV instead. It’s then bottled and ready for sale.
How is Sake Classified?
- Remember that sake in Japanese is known as nihon-shu (日本酒) or shu (酒).
Because the most desirable bit of the rice is the core of the grain, the amount of polishing is highly relevant to the quality and characteristics of sake. For all Tokutei Meisho-shu (特定名称酒, specially designated sake), labels must indicate the seimai-buai (精米歩合, remaining percentage) of the original grain.
Daiginjo (大吟醸)means that at least 50% of the original rice grain must be polished away (so that 50% or less remains) and also that the ginjo-tsukuri method – fermenting at cooler temperatures – has been used. There are additional regulations on which varieties of rice and types of yeast may be used and other production method restrictions.
Ginjo (吟醸) is pretty much the same but stipulates that at least 40% of the original rice is removed by polishing (so that 60% or less remains).
Pure sake – that is sake made only from rice, koji and water – is labelled as Junmai (純米). If it doesn’t state junmai on the label, this indicates that additional brewers’ alcohol has been added. So a sake labelled Junmai daiginjo is the highest grade in terms of percentage of rice polished away and is a pure sake with no brewer’s alcohol added.
Coming down the scale a little, Tokubetsu (特別) means that the sake is still classed as ‘special quality’, with up to 60% of the rice grain being retained, as per Ginjo, but production methods are different, especially when it comes to fermentation temperatures.
Honjozo (本醸造) on its own means that the sake is still rated above ordinary sake, but the rice is polished to remove at least 30% of the bran, leaving up to 70% of the original rice grain.
Tokebetsu junmai means the sake is pure whereas Tokebetsu honjozo means the sake has had alcohol added.
Futsu-shu (普通酒, non-designated sake) is the equivalent of “table wine” in France, and can vary in quality from good to poor.
Note that most sake is diluted to about 15% ABV (alcohol by volume) before bottling.
The Different Types of Sake
Amazake (甘酒) is a sake-like drink that can be low- or no-alcohol depending on how it’s made. It’s milky from rice solids, and water and sugar is added. It’s served hot or cold; the hot version usually has a little grated ginger provided alongside, to stir in to taste. I wrote about Amazake, after we tried it in Kyoto during our first visit to Japan.
Genshu (原酒) is undiluted sake, usually 17-20% ABV. Most sake is diluted to about 15% ABV.
Koshu (古酒) is sake that has been aged for at least two years. It develops rich flavours, somewhat like sherry, with a nutty or spicy flavour profile.
Kuroshu (黒酒) is made from completely unpolished brown rice grains, and is said to be more like Chinese rice wine than Japanese sake.
Muroka (無濾過) has been pressed and separated from the lees as usual but has not been carbon filtered. It is clear rather than cloudy but often has colour to it.
Namazake (生酒) is unpasteurised sake. Most sake is heated to pasteurise before being bottled. In contrast, namazake is considered a fresh product, and needs to be kept chilled.
Nigorizake (濁り酒) is cloudy rather than clear – the sake is passed only through a loose mesh or coarse cloth to separate the liquid from the mash. It is not filtered. There is usually a lot of sediment remaining and it is common to shake the bottle to mix it back into the liquid before serving.
Sparkling (Hiya-Oroshi), Sweet and Flavoured Sakes have become increasingly popular in Japan. They are often marketed to women but I recommend them to all drinkers as a light, refreshing and summery alternative to the classic styles. Fruit options, such as peach, plum and yuzu are also popular.
Taruzake (樽酒) is aged in wooden barrels or casks made from sugi, sometimes called Japanese cedar. The wood imparts quite a strong flavour and fragrance to the sake.
How to Drink Sake!
The first time I had sake, it was warm and I wasn’t convinced I liked it. My next experiences were of chilled sake and sake served at room temperature. I quickly realised that temperate makes a big difference to the drinking experience, with heat and cold bringing out different characteristics.
Sake can be chilled in the fridge, the jug served over ice at the table. To heat, pour into a serving jug and immerse in a pot of hot water. Take care not to overheat!
In Japan, there are 5 suggested temperatures at which to drink sake:
- Atsu-kan (熱燗, 50°C): vapor rises from the jug; the cup is hot to the touch. Aromas are sharpened; the heat brings out a dry and clean finish.
- Jo-kan (上燗, 45°C): some heat can be felt in the jug; vapor rises as sake is poured. Aromas are sharp and flavours crisp.
- Nuru-kan (ぬる燗, 40°C): warm rather than hot; this is close to body temperature. Aromas are richer and more rounded; flavour is full bodied.
- Jo-on (常温, 20°C): nominally room temperature, the jug feels a touch cool. Aromas and flavour are softened.
- Reishu (冷酒, 5-10°C): chilling sake masks some of the more subtle flavours. It suits sakes with robust or umami flavours.
Japanese sake drinkers usually ask for a glass of yawaragi-mizu (和らぎ水, which translates as ‘soothing water’) alongside their drink, which helps to clear the palate, to avoid drinking too quickly, and to keep a clearer head!
When it comes to serving and drinking sake, there is traditional etiquette you can observe if you like. Don’t pour for yourself; keep an eye on your drinking companions so you can top up each others’ cups when they are down to a third of a cup. Pour from the jug with both hands. When receiving sake, take a tiny sip from your cup, then hold it in one hand, supported by your other hand beneath.
Kampai (乾杯) – the traditional Japanese drinking toast–translates literally as “empty the cup”. Kampai!
Pairing Sake With Food
Sake has a range of flavour profiles. The aroma can be light & subtle through to rich, complex & full bodied. Some sakes have the most delightful fruity or floral scent, even though they come from rice & koji alone. Other sakes are more umami (旨味, savoury)—especially those that have been matured—and showcase a range of flavour notes such as spices, dried fruits. Sake can be naturally sweet or dry, with varying levels of acidity & bitterness.
Fruity & floral sakes are a great match for vegetable dishes such as vegetable tempura, & light seafood such as white fish & scallops. They are also a great palate-cleanser between courses.
Any light, smooth sakes with a clean aftertaste work well with sashimi & sushi, but can be overpowered by oily fish.
Full-bodied sakes with an umami flavour profile pair best with umami-rich meat dishes & food featuring cream or milk—try with yakitori chicken, tonkotsu ramen or a simple risotto.
Matured sakes pair best with umami-rich foods such as sweet-savoury soy-simmered dishes, meat, & oily fish. They’re particularly good with cheese.
Sweet sakes contrast pleasingly with salty foods but also complement fresh fruit.
Sake isn’t an obvious choice for heavily spiced food, but a nigori sake can work.
A good pairing example is the bottle of Nishinoseki Super-Karakuchi Koshu I was sent by the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association—it’s an aged sake the brewery has been making since 1988. We paired it with a creamy & pungent Welsh blue cheese, Caws Cenarth Perl Las. The sake reminded us of fino sherry, with a hint of sweetness balanced well by acidity. The pairing was really good, and brought out the best in both products! Nishinoseki are located on the Kunisaki Pensinsula in Ōita Prefecture in Kyushu. We visited the region in 2013, and I’m sure we were served their sake there!
Vessels Used to Serve Sake
My husband Pete made this sake jug and two matching cups by hand, shortly after taking up pottery as a hobby. They are a little small—we didn’t fully understand how much clay shrinks during the firing process back then—but we love using them!
A traditional sake jug like this is known as a tokkuri (徳利) , and the sake cup as an choko (猪口). The tokkuri is used much like a carafe is for wine—sake is poured from its original bottle into the tokkuri for serving to the customer. Cups are filled from the tokkuri.
Sake can also be served in a lipped bowl called a katakuchi (辛口)—these look a little like gravy boats without the handles. The 2nd photo shows a katakuchi we were served during a traditional kaiseki ryori feast at a ryokan in Japan.
Other sake vessels you may come across include the masu (升), a little wooden box made of Japanese cedar wood that is exactly the right size for a traditional measure; it holds 180 ml. The cedar wood can impart a subtle aroma to the sake, and it used to be more common to drink straight from the masu.
There’s a lot of variation in the style of the choko—one very lovely tradition you may encounter in restaurants and ryokans is to be offered a choice of choko in different styles.
There’s one particular design—a kiki-choko (きき猪口)—that is used in sake competitions and has a blue and white bullseye pattern inside that helps judges assess colour and cloudiness of sake.
There is also an older style of sake cup called a sakazuki (盃)which is far wider and flatter than a choko, and is used ceremonially in weddings and tea ceremonies.
All of these sake vessels can be made from a variety of materials including ceramics, glass, wood, bamboo, lacquerware, and metal.
The History of Sake
Sake has been made in Japan for many, many hundreds of years, and is an integral part of Japanese culture and life. The origins of sake are hazy, but historical records tell us that a simple rice alcohol was being made in China by 500 BC, and likely in Japan within a few hundred years of this time. Known as kuchikami-zake (口噛み酒) in Japan, this crude rice wine was made by chewing grains of rice, and spitting them into a vat. There, the natural enzymes in saliva broke down the rice, and natural wild yeasts fermented it.
The first written reference to sake in Japan is recorded in the Kojiki (古事記,), a record made in 712 CE during the Nara Period. By the late eighth century sake was used during religious ceremonies and royal court festivals, as well as for drinking games. During the Heian Period (794 to 1185 CE) the Imperial Court established the Miki-no-Tsukasa (酒造司, sake brewing office) to create and regulate the production of sake for the Imperial Court.
Koji mould was invented in China by 300 BC, and used on rice and soybeans to make a variety of food and drink. There is mention of koji being used in Japan as early as 725 CE but the larger scale use of koji in sake-making dates from around 1000, when controlled cultivation of koji began. Even today, Most sake producers in Japan cultivate their own koji in-house.
By the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573 CE), hundreds of small-scale sake makers had established themselves in Kyoto, Nara (in the region now called Kansai). These independent brewers made sake throughout the year, becoming leaders in the development and refinement of production processes. As more advanced and complex methods became the norm, brewers began to carry out their brewing during the winter season, with specialist roles such as toji (杜氏, chief brewers) and kurabito ((蔵人, brewery workers) recognised.
As methods were improved, a more complex three-step mashing and fermentation process called sandan jikomi (三段仕込)) became standard practice. There were additional developments in yeast brewing techniques and in filtration. More attention was focused on the impact of using different rice varietals, with more focus on rice characteristics, as well as water purity and quality. Brewing facilities and equipment also improved.
Sake continued to grow in popularity throughout the Azuchi-Momoyama, Edo and Meiji Periods (encompassing 1573-1912 CE). The methods established during these centuries are still used to this day.
Sake in Japanese Culture
The Japanese reverence for locality and seasonality of ingredients and diet means that brewers tend to create sakes that are very much born of their place of origin—what the French call terroir—and local sake is often considered the best match for local foods.
Seasonality is also embedded in sake drinking habits. In winter through to spring, fresh sake is favoured; in the heat of summer, chilled sakes such as nigorizake are refrigerated and served over ice; in autumn hiyaoroshi (ひやおろし, sake matured over the summer) comes into season.
Sake also has a strong role in cultural and religious life. Shintoism is a poly-atheistic faith in which one prays to a range of spirits or deities; it also has a strong association with nature and agrarian traditions. As one of Japan’s most important staples, rice is often given to Shinto (神道) deities to express gratitude and to ask for a successful growing and harvesting season—this can take the form of washed or boiled rice, pounded rice cake, or sake. In some of the celebrations, worshippers will drink sake, as well as making an offering. Over time, many of these traditions have also become a part of life at Buddhist temples, with sake offered in much the same way.
You will often see large displays of straw-wrapped and decorated sake barrels at shrines and temples. Sometimes, these are direct gifts from local associations of sake brewers, but in many cases they are bought and donated by other businesses as offerings.
Sake plays a part in many ceremonies. One example is ji-chin-sai (地鎮祭), performed before the construction of new buildings, in which sake is sprinkled over the property to “pacify” the ground. There are similar tasks as the building gets underway and when it is completed.
Kagami biraki (鏡開き) means to “open the mirror”, and can refer both to the breaking open of kagami mochi or a sake cask, the lid of which resembles a traditional Japanese mirror. This ceremony was born when the fourth Shogun Tokugawa gathered his feudal lords on the eve of a great battle, to break open a cask of sake. After the battle was won, the date and opening of the cask were commemorated annually. Today, cask opening has become a way to celebrate many events, including inaugurations.
Sake is also drunk to ward off evil spirits, and to wish for a long life. As one year ends and the new year arrives, the Japanese give thanks for the year that passes and wish for peace and success in the year to come. Sake is often made into toso (屠蘇), a medicinal drink made from natural herbs steeped in sake.
Shinto weddings are another traditional ceremony in which sake plays a part. Sakazukigoto (盃事), also known as san-san-kudo (三三九度, literally “three three nine times”) is a ritual exchange of sake in nuptial cups. After pouring, the couple each take three sips from three cups—small, medium and large to represent heaven, earth and humankind—as they also make vows before the deities.
Similar ceremonies exist for other pledged pairings such as deep friendships—this custom is known as katame-no-sakazuki and is used when those with no genetic connection forge family ties, such as sworn brothership or an adoptive parent and child relationship. Essentially, the exchanging of sake cups carries a similar connotation to signing a contract.
Additionally, sake is drunk at funeral services, as a farewell to and remembrance of the deceased. It is also given as an expression of condolences in the event of fires and natural disasters. Neighbours may pull together to clear debris and to rebuild, bringing sake to restore good luck.
In present-day banquets, you might come across a call to “do without the formalities”, an invitation to set aside social status for the duration and focus on bonding and enjoying each others’ company. The Japanese toast, “kampai!”, is a call to empty one’s glass and promotes the feeling of belonging.
During the Edo period, a custom of giving gifts known as o-chugen (in summer) and o-seibo (at the end of the year) became the preferred way for people to express personal gratitude to others for help given during the previous period. Subordinates would thank superiors, and superiors gave back a gift of twice the value, baigeshi. Today, this gift giving is popular between friends and colleagues without reference to social status or workplace rank, and sake has long been a gift of choice.
Sake is a delicious and fascinating drink, but more than that, it is culturally embedded in the very heart of Japanese life.
I hope this guide helps you to understand more about this wonderful drink and that you are encouraged to seek it out and try for yourself. If you are interested to read more about Japanese food and drink and travelling in Japan, please check out my other Japan posts.
The first iteration of this post was published in 2015, updated in 2016. It’s now been updated and expanded again during a social media campaign for which I have partnered with JSS (the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association) to share the joy of sake. Sake making images courtesy of Urakasumi Sake Brewery.