A Japanese Sake Guide

Sake, although believed to have originated in China, has become synonymous with Japan and has also been an integral part of Japanese culture for at least the last 2000 years. So what is sake exactly? It’s a traditional Japanese drink that comes in alcohol and non-alcoholic versions, it’s regarded as one of the oldest drinks in the world and is often referred to as the drink of the gods. The drink itself is known for its many health benefits thanks to its large quantities of antioxidants and is even commonly used in Japan as a replacement for cooking oil and seasoning.



An introductory video about the Japanese drink known as sake (nihonshu). The Video is owned and created by Letters From Japan.


How is sake made?

Sake is made from the finest ingredients such as high quality non-edible rice, fresh mineral enriched water from a natural source, koji spores and yeast. In the first step the rice gets milled down to a certain percentage (depending on the brand and variety); this is an extremely delicate process as the rice can easily get damaged if too much heat is used. The rice is then thoroughly washed and allowed to soak up water before it gets steam cooked. Koji mold spores are then added to the batch along with yeast for the fermentation process. The mash gets aged for around 18 to 32 days after which it gets pressed, filtered and blended.


The different types of sake

There are many varieties with each following a different brewing process but only 5 are considered to be the main types.

Junmai-shu

Junmai-shu is a high acidic premium drink strictly produced from at least 70% milled rice, water and koji mold with no distilled alcohol added. The lack of added brewer’s alcohol is what helps bring out its rich full rice based flavor. Junmai-shu, depending on the variety can be enjoyed warm, cold or at room temperature.

Honjozo-shu

Honzojo-shu is made with the same ingredients as Junmai-shu, including the same degree of rice milling (around 70%). However, it’s much smoother and has a considerable higher amount of noticeable fragrance thanks to the added distilled alcohol. For a sake to qualify as a honzojo-shu the weight of the added alcohol must not exceed 10% of the rice weight – although many of the best honzojo-shu brands contain a lot less than the maximum 10% allowance. It’s a premium grade drink that is best served warm.

Ginjo-shu

Ginjo Sake

A bottle of Ginjo-shu sake. The original uploader was PPGMD at English Wikipedia, Sakebottle 08-11-2006, CC BY 2.5

Many varieties of ginjo-shu are popular for its fresh aroma and fruity taste but keep in mind that not all types share these traits. It undergoes a lengthy and rather labor intensive production process where the rice gets milled to 60% levels. The fermentation process takes somewhat longer than other sake types and takes place under much colder than average temperatures. Some brands of ginjo-shu are ideally served cold while others are better at room temperature.

Daiginjo-shu

Daiginjo-shu has a lot in common with Ginjo-shu and is considered to be a subclass thereof. It follows a slightly more rigorous production process and the rice gets milled to 35% – 50% levels. Daiginjo-shu, according to many sake enthusiasts is the apex of sake brewery. There exists many varieties of this type but most tend to be predominantly light and carries a very pleasant and sweet smell. It’s best enjoyed cold or at room temperature.

Namazake

Namazake goes by various names such as Fresh and Nama Sake. The word Nama in the Japanese language means ‘raw’ or ‘natural state’ and when applied to sake it refers to it being unpasteurized. All other brew’s undergoes a pasteurization process where it gets heated up to around 149 °F (sometimes twice per brewing process) in order to help preserve the brew by destroying the enzymes. Namazake isn’t a standalone sake, instead you get it as a version of Daiginjo-shu, Honjozo-shu, Ginjo-shu and Junmai-shu.

Many people describe namazake as being easily distinguishable from pasteurized types with a refreshing fruity taste. More importantly, this variety should always be kept cold – both before and after opening. Reason being that it did not undergo heating during the pasteurization process, so therefore it still contains enzymes which could become activated and spoil when stored under warm conditions.

Nigori / Cloudy sake

Nigori, otherwise known as nigorizake is a light flavored brew with a very fruity taste. The word nigori translates to ‘cloudy’ and got the name for its cloudy appearance. Most brew’s undergoes a filtration process to remove fine rice particles from the drink but nigori is whats known as an unfiltered sake. Nigori is stored and served chilled; it’s also advised to shake the bottle before serving to stir up the fine rice particles which gives it that unique, dreamy cloudy appearance. Nigori goes perfectly with spicy foods since its regarded as one of the sweetest sake’s available.

Sparkling sake

The sparkling version of this ancient Japanese drink is a relatively new concept and only began gaining popularity among the younger generation, sake beginners and females in 2010. Most varieties of sparkling sake has a beautiful combination of sweetness and sourness with an alcohol percentage level of below 10%. There are currently just over 100 brands of the sparkling kind and many describe it as being extremely similar to champagne.


The different temperatures of sake

As previously mentioned, sake has a 2000 year long history with Japan but its only been recently (30 to 40 years ago) that certain types started being served chilled. Before, it was common practice for it to be consumed warm or at room temperature. As a general rule, premium versions are served chilled while the more common ones are best served warm – although there are exceptions.

Advancements in the brewing process negatively affects the taste of certain types when served at higher temperatures. Likewise, being served too cold may also hinder the taste. Use the table below as a recommended guideline on ideal sake temperatures.

Temperature Japanese Term English Term
32 – 41 ℉ Yuki-hie Snow cold
41 – 50 ℉ Hana-hie Flower cold
50 – 59 ℉ Suzu-hie Cool / refreshing
86 – 95 ℉ Hinata-kan Sunlight warmed
95 – 104 ℉ Hitohada-kan Skin temperature
104 – 113 ℉ Nuru-kan Luke warm
113 – 122 ℉ Jyoh-kan High heat
112 – 131 ℉ Atsu-kan Hot
131+ ℉ Tobikiri-kan Very hot

Commonly asked questions

There are four ingredients used in the production process. The main ingredient is saka mai (sake rice) which is strictly used for brewing and not eating. Interestingly, there are around 80 varieties of this special rice in existence. Water also plays an essential role in the process as its used in most stages of production from washing saka mai to diluting the final product. Mineral enriched water from natural sources is most preferred especially when it comes to premium sake. Other ingredients include yeast and an enzyme producing mold known as koji.

In Japan, the process of heating sake is called ‘Okan suru’ and can be performed via various methods. It’s important to get the temperature right because if the sake gets too hot it could make it dry and even ruin the flavor – so you only get one shot at it.

You might also want to invest in a good quality sake thermometer and remember that the ideal temperature depends on the type of sake you have.

How to warm sake with a stove

If heating sake via the stove method you will need a decanter. Fill the decanter 90% of the way and put plastic shrink wrap over the opening to prevent the aroma from escaping during the heating process. Put a pot onto the stove and place the decanter inside of the pot. Put just enough water in the pot for the decanter to be 50% emerged.

Remove the decanter, put the stove on and wait for the water to boil. Once the water is boiling turn the stove off and place the decanter back into the pot. Keep the decanter in for 2 to 3 minutes at a time while checking the temperature with a thermometer until it reaches the right temperature.

How to warm sake with a microwave

The microwave method is risky because its easy to overheat. Pour the sake into a decanter and put it into the microwave. The same rule of placing plastic shrink wrap over the mouth of the decanter applies here too in order to preserve the aroma. Set the microwave to the 600W setting and turn on for 20 seconds.

After 20 seconds remove the decanter and swirl the sake around a bit to help spread the heat around evenly. Place the decanter back into the microwave and continue heating. There is no set time limit for how long you should keep your sake in the microwave so keep checking the temperature periodically.

Sake can and does go bad. When unopened bottles are stored in cool, dark places the shelf life can increase dramatically but it also depends on the type. Most types have a shelf life of 2 years when stored correctly and unopened so be sure to check the release date on the bottle. The older the bottle the more of the taste gets lost so its always advised to drink it as fresh as possible. It’s recommended to finish the bottle within a few hours of opening to get the best quality. If you cannot finish the bottle within a few hours of opening then store it in the fridge and consume within 3 to 7 days.

Most types are brewed at 20% alcohol levels but gets diluted down with water to levels ranging from 15% to 16% – however, there are exceptions. The sparkling variety is known for having lower levels (13%-15%) while the Echigo Samurai brand contains levels of 46%.

It’s often called Japanese rice wine, although its not actually a wine but it does taste similar in some ways. It’s important to keep in mind that there are an estimated 40 000 to 50 000 sake brands with most of them tasting different from one another. The varieties are endless and depending on the brand can taste like strong alcohol, melon, strawberry, citrus, apple, cinnamon, nuts, rice, honey and lots more.

Unfiltered sake is commonly known in Japan as nigori / nigorizake and the word translates to ‘cloudy’. Most other types undergoes two filtration processes to remove the fine rice particles which results in the liquid having a clear appearance. However, unfiltered versions bypasses filtration thereby giving the liquid a cloudy appearance. It’s common practice to shake the bottle before serving which stirs up the rice particles giving it that unique cloudy appearance.

Cooking sake does not differ a lot from the drinking types; as a matter of fact, a decent quality drinking sake can be used for cooking purposes. The only differences with the cooking variety is that it has lower alcohol content, underwent a high rice polishing ratio and has some added salt.


Sake drinking utensils (Sake sets)

Sake sets are called shuki in Japanese and consists of a flask which contains the brew and cups to drink from. The sets are usually made from ceramic but can also be wood, glass, metal or plastic. Wooden sets used to be popular a long time ago as it had a pleasurable effect on the taste; however, in modern times this is not the case with brewers who produce premium brands as they do not want anything to alter the taste of their drink.

Three different sake cups; one of which is a masu.

Three different sake cups; one of which is a masu.


The various components of sake sets

  • Tokkuri: A tokkuri is the container vase which holds the sake. It can also be used for heating and the long, thin neck helps to keep the brew warm. These vessels usually holds up to 360ml at a time and comes in many different styles.
  • Ochoko: The small containers are what is known as ochoko. Most are narrow at the bottom but becomes wider towards the top and the reason for this is so that the aroma can easily travel upwards. They are available in various colors and sizes.
  • Guinomi: A guinomi is exactly the same as an ochoko but only smaller in size and with a curvier shape. They can be used for drinking but are also popular as collector items among sake enthusiasts. Guinomi’s are considered to be a less formal way of drinking as opposed to ochoko’s.
  • Masu: A masu is a wooden box originally created during the Edo period to measure soy sauce, sake, vinegar, as well as rice and other grains. It was eventually used as a sake drinking cup but is no longer a popular choice since it interferes with the taste and smell of premium brews. It is however, still in use today with traditionalists at izakaya’s (traditional Japanese pubs) and at special ceremonies. Masu’s typically come in two sizes – 144ml and 180ml.

Sake drinking etiquette

There are a few things to remember whenever drinking in a Japanese social setting. As with most things in Japanese culture there are a certain set of rules to follow.

The way you hold your ochoko

The first is how you hold your ochoko / guinomi (drinking cup). The cup is traditionally held in your left hand with the pinky finger supporting the base of the cup.

Having others pouring for you and pouring for others

Secondly, never pour your own drink. It’s customary in Japan to pour for others and to have others pour for you. It’s good practice to show courtesy as someone is pouring for you by holding your cup with both hands and by not looking around as the other person is pouring.

Seniority and status matter

Seniority and status matter – especially at a business related or a work event. If the person you are pouring for is of senior status then pour while holding the flask with both hands. If pouring for someone of junior status then its perfectly fine to pour for them with one hand.


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Further reading

Learn about the different methods of heating at truesake.com.


Sake was last modified: November 16th, 2018 by uzkbs