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28 July 2021

The Beginner's Guide to Sake


Tagged: Closer Look

Sake, or as it’s often known in the west, ‘Japanese rice wine’, has a rich, ancient history and continues to play a pivotal role in Japanese culture today. With the world’s eyes on Tokyo for the delayed 2020 Olympic Games, here’s everything you need to know about this nationally iconic beverage.

  1. The name ‘sake’ is a little misleading

In English, ‘sake’ (sar-keh) is commonly used to refer to the fermented rice beverage, but in Japanese, the term refers to all alcoholic drinks in general, including beer, wine and spirits. Japanese people actually refer to sake as ‘nihonshu’, which translates to ‘Japanese alcohol’.

  1. Sake is the oldest known spirit in the world

Some historians believe that sake dates back to 4800 BC China, and that it didn’t arrive in Japan until 300 BC when wet rice cultivation became popular. Japan’s subsequent development of the drink then made it synonymous with the nation.

  1. Sake has just three ingredients

Sake is made up of rice, water and Koji, a microbe that’s also found in soy and miso. Koji is a fungus that breaks down starch into fermentable glucose and influences aroma and flavour. Before the discovery of Koji, however, brewers would use spit, with the enzymes of their saliva aiding fermentation.

  1. The alcohol level of sake is commonly misunderstood

Sake is generally around 15-17% ABV, making it a little stronger than most wines. However, many people assume that because it’s a clear liquid served in small glasses it’s as strong as spirits such as vodka or gin.

  1. Brewing sake is an arduous process

Because rice is so high in starch it needs to be ‘polished’ before it’s used for sake, a process that strips it of protein and oils. The Koji is then steamed and kneaded into the rice by hand or by machines. Fermentation lasts between 25 and 30 days, during which time brewers will keep a close eye on the batch, adjusting its temperature or adding more ingredients as needed. The final stage, ‘Jo-So’, sees the rice mash pressed and the resulting liquid bottled.

  1. Sake comes in categories

Sake classification comes down to two factors: the rice polishing ratio, and whether extra alcohol has been added. If a sake has a polishing ratio of 70%, for example, it means that 30% of the outer grain has been milled away – the lower the ratio the more it has been milled.

Polishing affects the flavour of the final result. Sakes with a low polishing ratio usually have a lighter, more delicate character. High polishing ratios generally result in a more savoury, full-bodied sake.

Sometimes brewers will add small amounts of distilled alcohol, which can create a more aromatic, easy-drinking sake. It doesn’t necessarily mean the sake is more alcoholic, as water is added during the brewing process to dilute the drink.

The main categories are:

  • Futshu-shu

This is standard everyday drinking sake – sometimes called ‘table sake’ – for which there is no minimum polishing requirements.

  • Junmai

The rice has been polished to at least 70%, and the sake is made with only rice, water and Koji. It’s full-bodied in flavour, and pairs well with heartier meat dishes.

  • Honjozo

The rice is polished to at least 70% and alcohol has been added. It’s light, smooth and perfect for enjoying on its own.

  • Ginjo

Made with rice polished to at least 60%, this sake is fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. It has nuanced, delicate flavours with floral and fruit notes, and pairs well with light fish and seafood dishes.

  • Daiginjo

Made with rice polished to at least 50%, this is delicate, refined and regarded as the premium grade of sake.

This is not an exhaustive list – there are many other types of sake based on characteristics such as age, the number of pressings it goes through and were it has been brewed.

  1. Sake can be served warm or cold

…depending on its grading. More premium and lighter sakes are best served chilled, while heavier, fortified styles will taste best served warm.

  1. There is a certain etiquette around serving sake

It’s generally considered rude to pour your own sake, as it suggests you don’t trust your hosts to take care of you. And traditionally, hosts would pour sake so that it spilled over the cup’s rim – a sign of their generosity. However, sake is generally used to celebrate love and friendship and is used to toast weddings, birthdays, the New Year and other special events, so pouring for a friend is seen as an act of bonding. And while it’s served in small glasses, it’s not meant to be taken like a shot, but rather sipped slowly.

  1. Sake is not as popular in Japan as it once was

As Japanese drinkers have become increasingly interested in western beers and wines, the popularity of sake has dwindled – many young people in the country view it as something of an old person’s drink. However, its popularity abroad has blossomed, with demand for sake on the rise in the US and Europe.

  1. It will give you a hangover

Urban legend says that since sake is made up of such simple ingredients it won’t lead to hangover, but that’s unfortunately not the case. While it’s true that its sulphite-free nature and small serving sizes means it doesn’t rank too highly on the list of hangover-inducing beverages, drinking enough of it can definitely still cause problems the next day!