Japanese sake, for the average Westerner, can be mystifying. What exactly is it? How does one drink it, and how did it come about? In this beginner’s guide, we will answer all of these and more as we unveil this 2,000-year-old drink from the orient.
- What is sake?
- What does sake taste like?
- What is the alcohol content of sake?
- Is sake healthy?
There are two things you should know before we embark on this sake demystifying journey.
The first being that the Japanese call it rice wine, and it’s marketed as such. The term ‘rice wine’ is deceptive because it leads to many Westerners believing that it’s a wine made from rice. Yes, it contains rice but also yeast, and unlike wine, it’s brewed and therefore has a lot more in common with beer.
The second thing to keep in mind has to do with the word ‘sake.’ In the Japanese language, the word translates to ‘alcohol’ so this means that walking into a Japanese bar and asking for sake is the equivalent of walking into a Western bar and asking for alcohol. Bartenders need more specifics than that and rightfully so.
The correct name is nihonshu, which translates to ‘Japanese alcohol.’ So, as a general rule, when outside of Japan call it sake but when inside of Japan, call it nihonshu.
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What is sake?
For the average Westerner, it’s just another type of alcoholic drink, but to the people of Japan, it’s so much more since it’s deeply embedded in their culture and religion.
It is known as the national drink of Japan and has been made and consumed in Japan for at least the last 2,000 years. According to Shintoism, the national religion of Japan, sake is consumed and enjoyed by the gods, and it was they who had gifted this drink to the people of Japan.
The drink itself is made from fermented rice with its core ingredients being rice, mineral-enriched natural water, koji mold, and high-quality strains of yeast.
What does sake taste like?
Describing the taste is not easy because there are between 40,000 to 50,000 brands, with each tasting different from one another. There are, however, a couple of general similarities which we can discuss and some parallels we can draw up with wine.
It naturally has the flavor and taste of its core ingredient – fermented rice, but many brands masks this with a more favorable floral essence resembling flowers and fruits.
All types originally fell into one of two taste categories, dry and sweet. This changed in the last 30 or so years when they upgraded to a more complex five flavor system. The taste system, known as Go-mi in Japanese, consists of the following categories. Shibui (astringent), sanmai (acidic), nigami (bitter), umami (sweet) and karami (dry).
The go-mi taste system is somewhat complex and, although still in use today has been replaced by a more straightforward 4 taste system with the categories of aged, fresh, rich, and light.
So what does it taste like when compared to Western wine?
Many people find it easier to drink than wine because it’s much less acidic, and has a milder flavor that is more balanced.
As you can see, there is no easy answer. What is known is that with so many brands available, there is at least one for every taste. All you have to do is find it by trying out various types in private or with the guidance of a professional on a tasting tour.
What is the alcohol content of sake?
Sake contains more alcohol than most other types of alcoholic beverages, with most varieties sitting at 16 to 18% levels.
Not many people know this, but it is not legally allowed to have alcohol levels exceeding 22%. Once it surpasses the 22% mark, the yeast begins to die, and the bottle has to be labeled as something else entirely. The Echigo Samurai brand, with its 46% alcohol level, is the perfect example of this because although technically a sake, it’s labeled and marketed as a liqueur.
Sparkling sake sits at the lower end of the spectrum with alcohol levels starting from as little as 6%, but some brands go up to the more standard 16% levels.
Is it healthy?
The Japanese have a reputation for consuming healthy food and drinks, but how does sake stack up with this? Well, surprisingly, it does have a plethora of incredible health benefits – if consumed in moderation.
The list of sake health benefits is rather lengthy and pretty impressive. It’s good for the heart, improves the skin, reduces the risk of diabetes and various cancers, boosts the immune system, and wards off allergies – among many other things. Check out this list of scientifically proven health benefits.