Sake is much more than just a drink. It is a cultural icon — a symbol of tradition and craftsmanship enjoyed by people all around the world. Whether you're chasing your first glass or a seasoned Sake Sommelier, we've got the guide to help you navigate the sake world with ease. Raise a glass and dive in.
Sake boasts worldwide renown but, rather like the nation from which it sprang, remains something of a mystery to many. What is it? Well, to start with the obvious: sake is Japanese rice wine. It is a clear, fairly strong alcoholic drink brewed from fermented rice. Simple.
Except there is a lot more to it than that. The Japanese regard Sake as a symbol of hospitality and social bonding. This humble liquid has played an integral part in life for centuries; shared and spilled with family and friends alike, at the izakaya as well as at home, during street festivals and at the hanami cherry blossom viewings, for weddings and for New Year.
Monks played a significant role in development. In Shintoism, sake is believed to have purifying and cleansing properties and is often used in rituals to ward off evil spirits and to offer prayers to the gods. At shrines, visitors can purchase small cups as an offering to be made to the gods, which they can then drink or pour onto an altar. In Buddhism, sake is used in rituals to honor the Buddha and to offer prayers for the dead. Many Buddhist temples in Japan have their own breweries and produce their own sake — often sold to visitors, in fact, as a way to support the temple's activities.
Sake is often described as having a clean and refreshing finish. The flavour is unmistakable, but within that there's quite a range — as much variation as there is between whiskies or wines. Sake has a mild, smooth, and slightly sweet flavour with a delicate aroma. When you take a sip of sake, you may notice a subtle rice flavour complemented by floral or fruity notes. Others may have a more earthy or nutty taste. The sweetness of sake can range from very dry to mildly sweet.
This all depends on the type of sake and how it was brewed; the type of rice, water, yeast, and koji used, as well as the production methods and aging techniques employed. More on that later. Like wine and fortified wine, sake typically has an alcohol content ranging from 12% to 20%.
Sake is also a useful ingredient for cooking. Chefs employ a little splash of sake, together with a soy sauce and mirin, for a savoury umami flavour, excellent with fish and meat. It's a great way to bring a meaty depth to fried vegetables.
The correct way to pronounce the word is "sa-ke" — up at the end, closer to "that day" (not "sar-kee" like your car key). In hiragana characters it's さけ, though the Chinese kanji character 酒 is used in most cases. The character consists of two parts: the main part 酉 (tori) is a wine vessel or container, specifically a kind of bronze wine vessel originally used in ancient China, whereas the flicks on the left 氵essentially represent water.
Sake and nihonshu are essentially two names for the same thing, but while the word "sake" is used in the West, the correct term would be nihonshu. In Japanese, sake is the general word for all alcoholic drinks and booze, while nihonshu specifically refers to the rice wine. This guide might more appropriately be called 'The Complete Guide to Nihonshu', but most would accept the word has taken on a different meaning in English (goodness knows the Japanese use a lot of English words differently to how native speakers would). It is fine to use the two terms interchangeably.
Then there's shochu. Written as 焼酎 and pronounced with a long vowel sound on the first syllable. Typically stronger and a little rough around the edges compared to sake, shochu is a distilled spirit fermented from a variety (and often a combination) of base ingredients, including rice but also barley, potato, sweet potato, and more. It has a much stronger alcohol content than sake, around 25-30% ABV, if not as strong as vodka. Shochu can be consumed neat, on the rocks, or mixed with other beverages.
Good quality traditional sake is made from rice, water, yeast, and koji. Nothing more. The rice used for brewing sake is called sakamai (酒米). Koji is a fungus that breaks down the starch in the rice into sugar, which can then be fermented by yeast to produce alcohol. Moromi describes that whole mix of ingredients to undergo fermentation.
"Polishing" (seimaibuai) is critical in the production of sake. A sort of milling, it involves removing the outer layer of the sake rice grains to expose the starchy core, as the outer layers contain impurities and fats that can interfere with fermentation. The more that the rice is polished, the more pure starch is left, resulting in a higher quality sake. This level is indicated by percentage, with lower being a more polished product.
A starter mash, also known as moto or shubo, is the mixture that is used to kickstart fermentation. For sake, this process proceeds in three stages known as sandan shikomi. It involves adding more of the essential ingredients over a course of days. The three-stage process allows for a gradual buildup of complexity. The soon-to-be sake will be carefully monitored at each step.
Tomezoe is the final stage (the term literally means "stop fermentation). Additional steamed rice and water are added to the moromi at specific intervals. After some weeks, the resulting liquid is then pressed to separate the sake from the solid rice particles. Sake is not distilled (heated and condensed) but brewed like beer, cider, or wine.
The temperature and humidity of the fermentation process are carefully controlled to achieve the desired taste profile. Different varieties of sake may be aged for a period of time to allow further flavours to develop. Aging can take place in a variety of vessels, including tanks, barrels, and bottles, impacting the characteristics the drink.
The history of sake dates back to the 3rd century. Basic processes were first introduced to Japan via ancient China. Ancient sake was made using a crude process: rice was steamed, mixed with koji and water in a fermentation vessel, and left to ferment for several weeks. Just as in Europe, monks would play significant role in the production of alcohol in ancient Japan. During the Nara period (710-794 AD), sake production became more widespread, with the government actively promoting the use of sake in religious ceremonies and festivals. Sake also became an important commodity for trade, with different regions of Japan developing their own unique styles of sake production. In the Heian period (794-1185 AD), sake production became more sophisticated, with the introduction of new brewing techniques and more focus on refined ingredients, moving things forward in terms of clarity and complexity.
During the Edo period (1603-1868 AD), sake started to became a popular drink among the common folk. Many small breweries began popping up throughout the country. However, Japan also entered the Sakoku era in 1633. Also known as Japan's "closed period," Sakoku was a policy of isolationist foreign policy adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate until 1853. During this time, Japan restricted its contact and trade with foreign countries, allowing only a limited number of Dutch and Chinese traders in Nagasaki under strict supervision. Portuguese and Dutch missionaries and merchants would undoubtedly have sampled the drink on their travels.
The Edo Period also saw the introduction of multiple-stage fermentation processes. Before this period, sake was produced in a single fermentation process that often resulted in inconsistent quality. With this, brewers were able to refine their product. The government established the Sake Examination Office, testing and evaluating the quality of sake, and even providing certification to those that met the government's standards.
With the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, Japan opened up once more to the outside world and sake began to be export in modest quantities to Europe and America. The first recorded shipment of sake to Europe was made in 1876, and it became somewhat fashionable among upper-class European drinkers (along with a craze for ukiyo-e woodblock prints and other Japanese artifacts). Sake production has undergone significant changes since the Meiji Era (more or less Japan's Industrial Revolution) due to advancements in technology and changes in production. Today, it's a major fixture in global drinking culture.
Breweries, or sakagura (酒蔵), are found throughout Japan and located where there is good access to soft fresh water, free of impurities. Sake breweries often have a distinct architectural style, featuring large, sloping roofs to protect the buildings from heavy snowfall in winter.
Quality sake production demands a mild and stable temperature range around 5-20°C — much cooler than central Tokyo in the summer. Producers prefer more northerly or elevated locations. Some of the most famous regions include the rural and rugged parts of Niigata, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yamagata, and Ishikawa.
There are a few etiquette points to keep in mind. First and foremost, it's important to pour sake for others before pouring for yourself, as this is seen as a sign of respect and hospitality in Japanese culture. The order in which the sake is poured typically follows a hierarchy of seniority or respect, with the most senior or respected person being poured for first. In a more casual setting, such as a dinner party or gathering of friends, this hierarchy may not be as strictly observed, but it's a good rule of thumb.
The cups themselves are known as ochoko and are traditionally made of ceramic, porcelain, or lacquer, although they can also be made of glass, wood, metal, or plastic. Always a good souvenir idea. Often, the ochoko will come placed inside a little wooden box. This is called a masu and was originally designed for weighing out rice. Letting the cup "overflow" within the masu later became tradition — a sign of generosity, indulgence. Use two hands and pour until the cup overflows slightly .... if there is a masu, that is!
Sake has a rep as a posh drink. That's partly is true, but there is plenty of budget sake the supermarket and konbini. Most futsushu sake is mass-produced to be affordable. Stronger sake or shochu are used for mixers (but never shot back like tequila). Vodka and rum mixers are a little less common in Japan, particularly in traditional restaurants, as shochu has always been used for mixing instead. Rather than a vodka-lemonade you might ask for a Lemon Sour (レモンサワー) comprised of shochu and tonic with a twist of lemon.
Most sake can be served either way. Generally, lighter and more delicate sake varieties are served chilled, while richer and more full-bodied varieties are served warm. However, this is no hard and fast rule. You can serve almost any one cold or war depending on your preference, the occasion, or the season. Experiment and find the temperature that best suits your taste.
Atsukan is the name for sake when heated to hot temperature. Kanzake, meanwhile, refers to the minority of sakes specifically advertised and intended always to be served hot (about 40-50 degrees).
Sake varieties broadly fall into two categories. Futsu-shu, also known as ordinary sake or table sake (futsu meaning regular or standard) is made with rice that has been polished to at least 70% of its original size. It is often brewed with added alcohol and other ingredients to enhance its profile and is typically less expensive than other types of sake. It's the Japanese equivalent of a table wine and accounts for almost 60% of sake production. It is also the most commonly produced and consumed type of sake, accounting for around 80% of all sake produced.
By contrast, Tokutei Meisho-shu is premium or 'special designated' sake, made according to strict regulations and quality standards set by the Japanese government. For example, it must be made using rice that has been polished to at least a certain percentage and using only specific types of yeast and koji mold. This sake tends to be served more on formal occasions and can be quite expensive due to the high quality of the ingredients and production methods used. There are several sub-categories of Tokutei Meisho-shu, including Junmai-shu, Honjozo-shu, Ginjo-shu, and Daiginjo-shu, each with their own specific requirements and characteristics.
Honjōzō: Made with rice that has been polished to at least 70% of its original size. It is typically brewed with added alcohol, which helps to enhance the taste and aroma of the sake. Honjōzō is known for its smooth and light flavour, and is a popular choice for everyday drinking.
A premium sake that is made with rice that has been polished to at least 60% of its original size. It is brewed at lower temperatures than other types of sake, which helps to preserve its delicate aroma and flavour. Ginjō sake is known for its fruity and floral notes, and is often paired with light and delicate dishes.
The highest grade of premium sake, made with rice that has been polished to at least 50% of its original size. It is brewed at even lower temperatures than Ginjō sake, which results in a very delicate and refined flavour. Daiginjō sake is known for its complex and nuanced profile, and is often paired with sophisticated and elegant dishes.to this item.
For purists, junmai sake is made purely from natural ingredients and with no added sugar. The term literally means "pure rice" and this sort of sake is highly valued by sake enthusiasts for its rich, full-bodied elegance and complex aroma. It has a reputation as the most saught-after sake by those who appreciate the craftsmanship and skill that goes into it. Junmai sake can have a wide range of flavour notes and it is sorted by its milling rate — that is, the percentage of rice grain that has been polished. The more the rice is polished, the higher the quality of the sake, and the more expensive it tends to be. As a high-class drink, junmai sake is often served with high-end servings, such as top-end sushi or expensive cuts of beef.
Sake that is undiluted or full-strength, meaning that it has not been watered down after fermentation. This results in a higher alcohol content and a richer, more full-bodied tones. Genshu sake is often paired with hearty and savory dishes, such as grilled meats or stews.
Bottled immediately after pressing, without any aging or maturation. This results in a fresh and lively bouquet with a slightly cloudy appearance due to the presence of rice sediment.
Cloudy or unfiltered sake that contains rice sediment and other solids. It is typically sweet and creamy, with a slightly grainy texture. Nigori sake is often paired with spicy or savory dishes.
Aged sake that has been allowed to mature for several years before being released. It has a rich and complex taste profile, with notes of caramel and nuts. Koshu sake is often sipped on its own as a digestif.
Jizake is a type of sake that is produced by small, independent breweries, often using traditional methods and locally sourced ingredients. Jizake is highly valued by sake enthusiasts for its unique and distinctive flavours, which reflect the terroir and craftsmanship of each individual brewery.
Rather like craft ales and IPAs, there's a plethora of small to medium sized breweries out there when it comes to sake, rather than a cartel of Carlsbergs and Budweisers. Sake drinkers have a tendency to mix things up each time they sit down for a drink, sampling examples from all over the country, as would a drinker of craft beer. Bottles are uniquely and beautifully designed and more often than not provide some info about the flavour profile (dry, sweet, floral, mellow, and so on).
It is sad but true, but a major reason why the world of sake is so tough to get into is that those elegant sake bottles very seldom feature any English copy on the label. Sake is mostly produced for the domestic Japanese market, sure, but it has also become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. One might argue sake is not as commonly-drunk around the world as it ought to be. Suntory's Roku Gin, launched in 2017 and marketed specifically toward Western consumers, today outsells all sake brands internationally.
Nevertheless, it remains a big-seller in Japan and does well enough overseas: According to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, the country exported approximately 23,600 kiloliters in 2020. The top export destinations for Japanese sake include the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. There has been a growing interest in sake around the world in recent years and many breweries are now focused on expanding their export markets — placing (finally!) English translations on the bottles to make it more accessible to foreigners.
In recent years, the world of Japanese rice wine has seen a number of trends that reflect changing consumer preferences. One notable trend has been an increased interest in premium sakes, such as ginjo and daiginjo. These sakes are highly prized for their delicate flavours and aromas, which are often compared to those of fine wines.
There has been a growing interest in innovative and experimental sakes in recent years, as brewers seek to appeal to new and diverse audiences. This has led to the development of a wide range of flavoured and untraditional sakes, such as sparkling sake, sakes brewed with fruits and herbs, and even low-alcohol and non-alcoholic sakes. Overall, these trends reflect a dynamic and evolving industry, as brewers seek to balance tradition and innovation in the world of Japanese rice wine. That said, there has also been a renewed focus on eschewing the big manufacturers in favour of smaller regional sake producers, with locally sourced ingredients and brewed using traditional methods. These sakes are highly valued by enthusiasts for their unique and distinctive flavours, reflect the terroir of each individual brewery.
Sparkling sake is a relatively new thing in the world of sake, much as lager and champagne are fairly recent inventions. Sparkling sake, though, really is a very recent thing - launched in the 1970s as a response to the influx of European sparkling wines gaining popularity during the economic boom times in Japan.
True sparkling sake is made by adding carbon dioxide during the second fermentation process. It pops its cork just like a champagne bottle. Cheaper options might involve the mixing of sake with soda water. Lower in alcohol content than traditional sake, sparkling sake offers a lighter and more refreshing alternative. The trend has only grown in popularity in recent years, especially among younger drinkers. Served in flutes or champagne glasses rather than the sake cups of old, it's a great choice of aperitif.
Sake is much more than just a drink — it's a cultural icon, a symbol of tradition and craftsmanship, and a beverage that is enjoyed around the world. Whether you prefer a smooth and refined ginjo sake, a rich and complex daiginjo, or a refreshing and bubbly sparkling sake, there's no denying the incredible variety and diversity of this beloved beverage. So whether you're a seasoned sake enthusiast or a newcomer to the world of rice wine, there's never been a better time to explore all that the delightful liquid has to offer. From local and regional sakes to innovative and experimental brews, there's something out there for every palate and every occasion.