Most of what you know about sake is probably wrong, from what temperature to serve it to how to pour it and drink it. This guide will help beginners understand how to drink sake the right way.
If you visit Japan, you will quickly discover that a wealth of history and tradition surrounds this ancient drink that’s deeply embedded into Japanese culture.
While learning every aspect of the elaborate etiquette surrounding how to drink sake is a bit much, you can easily enjoy it in a way that honours the culture and lets you appreciate the complexities and subtleties of this noble beverage.
- Important Sake Basics
- How To Drink Sake Like A Pro
- Sake Production
- Different Types Of Sake
- A Brief History Of Sake
- Further Reading
Important Sake Basics
What Is Sake?
Sake (pronounced “sah-kay”) is a Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. Although it is often called rice wine, looks like white wine, has an alcohol content comparable to wine, and is supposed to be drunk in ways similar to wine, the actual brewing process resembles that of beer.
What Does Sake Taste Like?
Sake tastes like rice and caramel, with pronounced umami meatiness in junmai sake (from the koji mould). Ginjo sake tastes more delicately floral or fruity, and some taste like cotton candy. Daiginjo sake is even more refined, with greater complexity, fruity/floral flavours, or sometimes drier or funkier notes.
How Is Sake Drunk?
Sake is usually served at room temperature in a small glass and slowly sipped to enjoy the delicate rice flavours that reveal fruit, flowers and caramel notes.
When Is Sake Traditionally Drunk?
Sake is traditionally enjoyed at religious festivals, weddings, funerals, company openings, and national holidays. Various customs surround the correct drinking of sake.
How Is Sake Made?
In summary, sake is made by adding koji mould to a combination of polished rice and water so that fermentation will convert the starch contained in rice to alcohol. This resulting alcohol is then filtered, pasteurised and bottled.
How Strong Is Sake?
Despite being consumed like wine yet brewed like beer, sake has a higher alcohol content by volume (ABV) than either. Undiluted sake comes at around 15-20% ABV.
What Is A Sake Bomb?
A sake bomb is a type of drink whereby a shot glass of sake is dropped into a 3/4 filled glass of beer and the contents drunk in one go. Sake is all about flavour and tradition and should never be drunk as a sake bomb.
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How To Drink Sake Like A Pro
Use The Correct Name When Ordering
If you are ordering sake, the first thing to know is that in Japan, the word sake refers to any alcoholic beverage. If you ask a Japanese person for sake, they will probably look at you confused. Instead, ask for it by its Japanese name, nihonshu.
If you are in a sake bar in the West, look on the menu for the terms related to type and grade to guide you in selecting what to order. Many bars also include helpful tasting notes, so you can pick a flavour profile that appeals to you.
Order The Correct Size
Inquire about the serving size (glass, carafe, or bottle) to determine the best value for money and a chance to sample different styles, and don’t be afraid to ask the sake sommelier for recommendations. Some bars offer tasters for you to test before you buy a whole carafe.
Drink Sake Hot Or Cold?
Although you may think that sake must be served hot, this is a misconception dating from the days when cheap, poor-quality sake was served hot at Western sushi joints to disguise its roughness.
To enjoy sake the traditional way, drink futsushu, junmai, or honjozo sakes at room temperature (hiya) or warm (okan) as an accompaniment to warm meals and on cold winter evenings. Never drink any sake steaming hot.
Drink ginjo or daiginjo sake, junmai or non-junmai, chilled. Their flavour profiles are best appreciated cold, allowing the delicate floral and fruity scents to come to the fore instead of being masked by alcohol fumes.
Sip Or A Shot?
Because the Japanese traditionally serve sake in tiny cups that somewhat resemble shot glasses, many people have incorrectly assumed that you are supposed to consume it as a shot.
However, not only would Japanese people consider this a breach of etiquette, but it also doesn’t allow you to appreciate the subtle flavours of sake. Instead, you should sip it to experience the beautiful depth of taste.
Drinking Sake The Traditional Way
Traditionally, you serve sake from a carafe known as a tokkuri (or occasionally a pitcher called a katakuchi) and drink it from a small cup known as an ochoko or guinomi. On formal occasions, a saucer-shaped vessel called a sakazuki is used.
When drinking in polite company, never pour your own sake – this is deemed rather rude. Sake is meant for social bonding, and Japanese people traditionally pour for each other.
Hold the tokkuri in both hands and pour it into your companion’s ochoko. If you are the recipient, hold your cup with your left-hand underneath, and your right hand cupping the side, and raise it off the table.
When you are done drinking, leave a little sake in your cup, or your drinking companion will assume you want more and will continue pouring for you.
Sometimes, an ochoko is placed inside a box of aromatic cypress wood in Japanese bars, called a masu. They will pour sake into the ochoko so that it overflows as a sign of generous hospitality. You can drink the sake out of the masu after you have drunk from the ochoko.
What Food Pairs Best With Sake?
Although most Westerners think of sake as pairing well with sushi, Japanese people aren’t so keen on drinking a rice-based drink with a rice-based meal.
You should instead pair ginjo or daiginjo sake with delicately-flavoured dishes such as fish or chicken (like white wine or sparkling wine). Drier premium sakes go well with meals like wagyu steak, while honjozo and futsushu sake go well with heavier dishes such as rich meat stews or marinated barbecued meats (much like beer does).
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Sake Production Process
Sake production begins with unique varieties of rice, which are then “polished,” with the outer layers of the grain milled off to remove excess protein. The more the brewery polishes the rice, the higher the grade of sake, with these grades regulated by the Japanese government.
The rice is then washed, soaked, and drained before the toji (brewer) steams it in a vat. Once the steamed rice has cooled, the toji spreads it on a long table and scatters koji mould (Aspergillus oryzae) over to convert the starch into sugar.
Two days later, the toji makes a fermentation starter (shubo) with water, steamed rice, and koji mould is then put in a tank.
More steamed rice, water, and koji are added in three stages to give the mould time to multiply, and after several weeks the resulting fermentation mash (moromi) is pressed to get the sake out. The brewery then pasteurises, filters, and stores it before bottling.
What Is The Sake Meter Value?
Measuring the ratio of sake to water, the Sake Meter Value (SMV) is an indicator of how sweet (negative numbers) or dry (positive numbers) a particular sake is. Experiment to find an SMV you like.
Different Types Of Sake
There are five main types of sake, and each has a distinct creation process and flavour profile.
- Junmai-shu is the most ‘pure’ of sake types (if there is such a thing). No brewers alcohol, additional starch or sugar is added to the mix, and it has a minimum of 70% milled rice.
- Ginjo-shu is made with 40% milled rice and uses a particular type of yeast during fermentation.
- Daiginjo-shu uses 35 – 50 % milled rice and is exceptionally fragrant.
- Honjozo-shu, by contrast, uses 30% milled rice and has brewers alcohol added to the mix to give it a light body and flavour.
- Namazake is simply an unpasteurised sake; any sake can be namazake.
The terminology related to types of sake can be confusing. Firstly, sake is either junmai (no alcohol added) or non-junmai (alcohol added).
Both styles come in several grades according to how much the brewery has polished the rice grains. The lower the milling figure means more of the rice grain has been milled away, and the better quality the sake.
Non-premium sake, such as honjozo, has at least 70% of the grain remaining after the polishing process.
Tokutei meishoshu, or special designation, refers to premium sake. These grades can have a rice polishing ratio of between 50-60%, with that figure depicting how much percentage of grain is left after the milling.
If you see the term nigori, it means that the sake is cloudy from suspended rice solids (and can be any grade). Happoushu refers to a 21st-century innovation, sparkling sake. The term nama refers to unpasteurised sake.
Although people look down on honjozo and futsushu, some excellent rustic sakes exist in these categories.
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A Brief History Of Sake
After wet rice cultivation was introduced to Japan in the 3rd century BC, a crude form of sake arose that involved chewing the rice to introduce enzymes.
Brewing with koji mould was discovered and spread across Japan in the 8th century AD (during the Nara period), becoming a government monopoly. In the 10th century AD, Shinto temples started brewing it.
By the early 16th century, the Japanese had more or less perfected modern sake. From 1868 onward (the Meiji Restoration period), new laws allowed anyone to open a sake brewery, and breweries proliferated. Modern production techniques developed, with steel tanks replacing the traditional wooden barrels (image below).
To prevent loss of tax revenue, the Japanese government enacted a ban on the home brewing of alcohol, a prohibition still in force today. A national rice shortage during World War II led to brewers adding alcohol to the rice mash, which resulted in increased production. This style of sake still accounts for around 75% of the market.
Sake is not meant to be a hot, rough shot or a sake bomb to down without appreciation. Instead, it is rich in history and tradition and has a wealth of varieties with unique characteristics. Now you know how to drink sake as a local, I wish you many adventures sampling this fascinating drink.
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