When we took our first trip to Japan, we didn’t know a whole lot about sake, the national beverage of Japan, except for what we learned at a sake brewery in Oregon. But we did know that we really liked it, and wanted to know more. The good part is that sake is served everywhere in Japan, and it would be more difficult to avoid it than to seek it out. Visiting a few sake breweries and shops was definitely at the top of our list of things to do in Japan.
If you don’t already know this, Japanese sake is an alcoholic beverage that is made from fermented rice. It can be served either hot or cold (though mostly cold). 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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.