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Guide to Sake
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Guide to Sake

If you want to learn more about the famous Japanese rice wine known as Sake before you arrive in Japan then you’ve come to the right place. 

What is Sake?
A Brief History of Sake
How is Sake made?
What are the Special Sake Grades?
How is Sake served?
Bonus Recommendations


Sake (or nihonshu as it is known in Japan) is arguably the most famous drink to come out of Japan and has been a part of Japanese culture for thousands of years. While it is as quintessentially Japanese to Westerners as sushi and sumo, it’s very possible many international visitors have never actually tried sake and they may feel unsure where to start with this complex beverage. Thankfully, we’re here to help with this comprehensive beginners guide so that when you visit Japan and travel from city to city and prefecture to prefecture with your JR Pass, you’ll know exactly what you’re talking about when you want to order nihonshu at an izakaya or restaurant. 

What is Sake?

First of all, sake is not what you think. The word ‘sake’ in Japanese actually refers to any alcoholic drink so if you went into a bar and asked for sake, you’re not being very specific. If you want the Japanese fermented, alcoholic beverage made from rice (commonly known as sake to westerners) then you should actually order nihonshu. This is sake’s true name. 

There are many different types and varieties of sake (nihonshu) available, from the inexpensive to premium. Just like the huge range of wines in the world, they all taste subtly (and sometimes massively) different, and the same can be said of sake. For this reason, you need to try several types in order to get a sense of how it tastes and whether it is the drink for you. However, generally speaking, it can be described as tasting mildly sweet, with an aroma of fruit and nuts, and a slightly savoury finish. Sake is considered by many to be more complex and subtle than many other alcoholic drinks.  

A Brief History of Sake

Sake (nihonshu) dates back more than 2,000 years in Japan and while its full origins are a source of debate and mystery, it is believed the production of the drink began in the centuries following the introduction of rice cultivation to Japan from China around 2,500 years ago. In A.D. 689, sake is referenced as part of the brewing department founded in the Imperial Palace in Nara and around 1,000 years ago, koji, was added to the process, which in many ways, is the key element needed to create sake as we know it. However, it was not until the Edo period that Japan began to produce sake on an industrial scale. This continued through the centuries with the next biggest change coming due to the impact of the Second World War between 1939-1945. This had an adverse effect on the industry in the short-term, but it eventually rebounded in the 1960s and 1970s when it reached the height of its popularity and mass production. Since then, it has also seen Japan’s master brewers further refine the drink to create the most premium varieties that are available today.

How is Sake made?

Sake (nihonshu) is largely made from just three ingredients - soft water, rice, and koji (aspergillus oryzae). The latter is a special, naturally-occurring fungus that acts in sake like malt in beer. It produces enzymes which turn starch into sugar through saccharification. 

In a process similar to stripping coffee beans, grains of rice are polished or milled away to remove the outer layer so that only the starch-rich centres are used. There are many different varieties of rice but also those officially graded as sakamai may be used to make sake - this is one of the many ways in which the quality is assured. There are believed to be around 60 sakamai in Japan. The rice is then washed, steamed, and cooled, and enters the fermentation process, which is where ‘toji’ master brewers add the koji and begin to shape the taste and flavour.  

What are the Special Sake Grades?

There are a number of different sake grades, created using variations in the brewing process. Higher grade sake is made from higher polished rice - it is the latter which determines the grade. The rice-polishing ratio is known as ‘seimai buai’ in Japanese. Here is a selection of special sake grades: 

  • Honjozo

This is entry-level, affordable sake that’s readily available. 

  • Daiginjo

Premium sake, best served chilled, with a minimum 50% polishing ratio.

  • Koshu

Matured or aged sake.

  • Nigori

Milky or cloudy sake with an opaque look. 

  • Genshu

Sake produced with less water to give it a stronger taste and higher ABV level. 

  • Muroka

Unfiltered sake with a complex, earthier flavour. 

  • Orizake

Sake with sediment left in. 

  • Happoshu

Sparkling sake.

  • Taru

Sake stored in Japanese wooden cedar casks. 

  • Yamaha

Also known as Kimoto Tsukuri, this sake is made with more yeast.

  • Nama

Unpasterised sake.

How is Sake served?

While the stereotype of sake is that it is served warm, it can actually be hot or cold. More refined and expensive sake tends to be the latter. Sake is typically served in a ceramic tokkuri pitcher with a set of small choko ceramic cups. The standard serving size is referred to as 'go' (180ml) and the small cups are part of the ceremony of drinking sake, which is usually meant to be enjoyed with friends in a social setting. However, expensive, high-end sake is often consumed in a larger glass (similar to a wine glass) so it has more room to breathe.

Bonus Recommendations

If you’re interested in Japan’s food and drink then we have many more blog posts for you to read. Here are our bonus recommendations.

  • Sake is not Japan’s only alcoholic beverage. Japan has a thriving craft beer scene and also has a serious love of whiskey that has led to it becoming one of the world’s leading whiskey producers. 
  • Meanwhile, when it comes to non-alcoholic beverages, Japan is famous for its tea and tea ceremonies, while also having a strong coffee culture. Read about What It Is Like To Attend A Japanese Tea Ceremony in our guide.
  • Izakaya’s are Japanese bar-restaurants, almost their equivalent of a gastro pub, where drinking is as important as eating. Find out Why You Should Visit an Izakaya in our guide.   

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