All About Japanese Sake: the National Drink of Japan

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If you’re wanting to know more about Japanese sake, it’s likely because you’ve tried it and liked it enough to want to know how it’s made and how to determine between the variations and grades that are available to purchase.

One of the biggest hurdles to understanding and enjoying sake in all its forms is a lack of knowledge about how the product is made and labeled, so we thought we’d share some of the knowledge we’ve gathered in Japan from visiting various sake breweries.

Japanese Sake
Japanese Sake

» If you want to include a visit to some sake breweries in your trip to Japan, here’s the information you’ll need.

What is Japanese Sake?

Japanese sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. Sake is served everywhere in Japan and has come to be known as the national beverage there.

Tasting sake in Japan is a fantastic experience for anyone that enjoys sampling wine and spirits. Sake has been around for 2,000 years. It’s an enduring drink with a rich history.

What Does Sake Taste Like?

Japanese Sake - what does it taste like?
Japanese Sake (photo via Flickr by Martin Cathrae)

Since Japanese sake is made from rice, it’s hard to imagine what it might taste like. It even sounds a bit strange, but sake actually has a smooth, sweet taste that is even a bit creamy. It is a fermented alcoholic beverage, with typically about 15% ABV (which is comparable to most wine), but it doesn’t taste “hot” or have a sharp alcohol taste.

There are many different types of sake, as you’ll learn in the next section, so the nuances of the sake can vary quite a bit. They also range from sweet to dry. If you’ve had sake in a Japanese restaurant in the United States, chances are it was served hot. This was often done to mask the flavor of low-quality sake. But serving it hot can ruin the flavor profile, which is never a good thing.

As long as you’re drinking high-quality, premium sake, it should be served slightly chilled. Sake comes in many different varieties and styles, so it’s important to try a few to determine what you like.

One sake doesn’t speak for them all, so trying just one may lead you to think you don’t like sake, while just trying a different type can change your perspective.

The Types of Sake

Learn all about the different types of sake
Learn all about the different types of sake

The basic types of sake are determined mostly by the amount of polishing the rice undergoes. The more polished the rice, the more smooth and clean the taste of the sake. So more premium sakes are made with a rice that has been highly polished. The percentage given below refers to the amount of rice that is left after polishing – so 70% means that 70% of the rice remains.

Junmai – Junmai sakes are made with rice that does not require milling or polishing, but is usually polished up to 70%. Junmai also means that the sake is pure rice, with no added distilled alcohol. If the word Junmai is added to another level of sake, it means there is no added alcohol. The flavor is usually robust.

pouring sake

Honjozo – Honjozo is very similar to Junmai in that the rice has to be polished to 70%, but it contains a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol. Again, the flavor is fairly full and rich, but perhaps more refined than a Junmai.

Ginjo – Ginjo sake must use rice that is polished to 60%. You can have a Ginjo or a Junmai-Ginjo. As the ginjo is a more premium sake, you can expect the flavors to become more smooth and fragrant, because more expertise and high-quality ingredients are going into its making.

Daiginjo – A Daiginjo is the most premium level of sake, thus has more nuances, flavor, aroma and smoothness. The rice must be polished to 50%. You can find a Junmai-Daiginjo as well, if you want to see what the flavor is like without the distilled alcohol added. You can really see and taste the skill of the sake maker in a bottle of Daijinjo, which can be quite expensive.

⇒ Become a sake expert with The Sake Handbook.

Different types of sake
Different types of sake (photo by Savored Sips)

The History of Sake

Interestingly, sake’s origin can be traced back to China, as long ago as 4,000 BC. Though, Japan was the country that began to mass produce this simple spirit.

The initial process required the milling of rice kernels, cooked in clean water and then formed into a mash. Centuries ago, the whole village would engage in chewing the rice along with nuts, which they would then spit into a community tub to start the process of fermentation. This process ended once they learned about using yeast and a mold enzyme called koji for the fermentation process.

Initially, sake was just produced by individual families or villages for use at home or in celebrations. In the Shinto religion, it was an offering to the Gods as well as something the bride and groom during a wedding ceremony must consume. Many of the traditional uses for sake in this religion are still upheld today.

By the 1300s, the mass production of sake made it the most important beverage in the country. Production processes began to improve over time and eventually breweries dotted the horizon of the nation.

Rumor even has it that an angry employee tried to destroy the batches of sake by adding ashes to it, however those ashes actually refined it further, making it even better. Automation during the Industrial Revolution completely reshaped the process of making sake, allowing it to become even more widespread.

Sake Brewery
Interior of a sake brewery

How Sake is Made

The sake brewing process is very similar to that of making beer or wine. However, there are also many differences that are interesting to learn about. The process starts with the milling and polishing of the rice. The rice is then allowed to rest and absorb humidity so that it can withstand the addition of water without cracking.

At this stage, water is added to the rice and it is allowed to steep for a few hours or overnight. The rice is then steam cooked. After being cooked to the just right amount, a mold called Aspergillus oryzae is sprinkled over the rice and allowed to ferment for about a week. This forms a koji. Water and yeast is then added to the koji and allowed to incubate.

After the incubation period, there is a 4-day process of adding more rice, water and yeast to the mixture in 3 stages, to make the main mash. The mash is then fermented for another 2-3 weeks. The sake is then filtered, and distilled alcohol is added to enhance the flavor and texture. It then goes into the bottle for additional aging before being sold.

As you can see, a lot of skill and expertise is involved in this process to get it just right and produce a well-balanced sake.

How to Drink Sake

Sake is often served in masu, which overflows the glass and fills up the box
Sake is often served in masu, which overflows the glass and fills up the box (photo by Savored Sips)

Sake is a Japanese alcoholic drink that is made from fermented rice. It has many subtleties and nuances that can be enjoyed when it is served and drank in the proper way. 

Sake can be served at room temperature, warm, hot or chilled. This often depends on the quality of the sake, the season, and the drinker’s preference. It is served from a (usually porcelain) decanter into small cups. See our guide on finding the perfect sake set.

Since sake can be served warm or hot, the decanter is made to withstand heat, so to warm your sake you can place it in a pot of hot or boiling water to bring it up to the desired temperature – typically around 105 degrees F.

sake drinking

When you drink the sake, you should raise the glass to your mouth, smell the aroma, take a small sip and allow the liquid to linger on your tongue for a moment before swallowing, to taste all the flavors. Sake is not meant to be gulped. It should be savored in small sips.

When drinking sake with others, you should never refill your own glass, and should remember to fill your companions glasses, as well. “Kanpai” is the word for cheers in Japanese. (Learn how to say cheers in many other languages here).

CONCLUSION

We have you’ve learned a ton about Japanese sake in this guide and have decided to go out and try some new types and brands. Also check out our Mezcal guide.

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Learn all about Japanese sake: Japan's national drink
Learn all about sake: Japan’s national drink

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