The Role of Sake Around the Globe

by Shukuko Heinzen January 26, 2024

Although it’s still quite new to people in many countries, the presence of sake around the world is expanding. Let’s explore the rich culture and meaningful traditions surrounding sake.

Where Is Sake From?

Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from purified water and fermented rice. Although each variety has its own unique flavor profile, all feature a clean, smooth texture and lingering sweetness that makes it incredibly versatile for pairing with food or drinking by itself.  

It’s commonly known as “rice wine,” though this name is a bit of a misnomer. Unlike other fermented drinks like beer or wine, sake undergoes a double fermentation process that naturally results in a much higher alcohol by volume (ABV). 

Japanese Sake Culture

Sake has a long, rich legacy tied to key components of Japanese religion and culture. In previous centuries, Japanese high society had strict rules about how to serve and drink sake. 

Here are some examples of the most common sake traditions practiced in Japan today.

Religious Ceremonies

Shintoism is the most prominent religion in Japan, with 48.5% of Japanese citizens identifying as followers. Buddhism follows close behind, making up 46.3% of the population. Many Japanese people combine practices from both faiths in their daily lives as a result of the country’s complex religious history.

While Buddhists typically avoid alcohol, sake plays a huge role in many Shinto purification rituals. Rice is a crucial component of Japanese cuisine, making it a valuable offering to the Shinto gods (kami) — supernatural deities that inhabit and manipulate the natural world. 

That offering includes items made with rice, such as high-grade sake. Traditionally, Shinto priests would brew this sake — omiki, or “sacred wine” — specifically for offerings to ensure it was of a high enough quality to please the gods. 

This practice of making sake offerings is still going strong today. You’ll often find rows of donated sake bottles and casks lining Shinto shrines throughout Japan. However, most omiki now comes from sake breweries, as there are only a few Shinto shrines that still make it. 

Weddings

Weddings unite two people — and their families — in a lasting bond. What better way to mark such an event than by drinking sake? Traditional Japanese weddings often include sake rituals such as:

  • San-san-kudo: Literally translating to “three-three-nine,” this tradition involves the bride and groom each taking three sips from three cups of sake to symbolize their wedding vows. Sometimes, the parents of the couple join in 
  • Kagami-biraki: This sake-opening ritual, translated as “opening the sacred cask,” represents spreading good cheer and fortune among the wedding guests.

Sake will also often make an appearance on the wedding menu, as it pairs beautifully with a wide variety of foods and desserts. 

Seasonal Festivals

Hanami, or flower viewing festivals, are one of the most well-known Japanese traditions. It takes place in mid-to-late spring, when the cherry blossoms (sakura) fall from the trees. Sipping sake while watching the petals fall enhances the event and brings out the fleeting beauty of the changing seasons. 

Of course, people drink sake to celebrate many other festivals, including:

  • Tsukimi: Autumn moon-viewing festivals where people offer sake and special foods to the gods to thank them for a good harvest.
  • Momo no Sekku: The Peach Seasonal festival, where people drink peach-infused sake to bring good health. 
  • Yukimi: Snow viewing festivals, where people drink hot sake to ward off the cold weather while ushering in the start of winter.
  • Shinnenkai and Bonenkai: These festivals, which celebrate the New Year and the previous year’s end, often involve drinking sake to ward off misfortune in the coming year. Many households also drink otoso, a sweet spiced sake, in the morning on New Year’s Day.

Bonding With Colleagues

Drinking sake with others breaks down the strict social barriers that characterize Japanese society, especially in professional settings. That’s why nomikai, or drinking with one’s colleagues, is such a large part of workplace culture in Japan — in fact, many see participating in nomikai as vital to their career prospects.

When drinking with your coworkers, it’s customary to always pour for others and wait until everyone has been served before you start. These actions help create a sense of unity and equality that allows everyone to lighten up and forge real bonds with each other.

Japanese people also typically eat ostumami, or finger foods, while drinking with their coworkers. These dishes are similar to appetizers or bar snacks in the west and typically include:

  • Steamed edamame
  • Kamaboko
  • Tebasaki
  • Grilled shishamo
  • Dried squid
  • Nuts
  • Gyoza

International Sake Culture

Although the drinking culture outside Japan is still mostly designed around wine, beer and Western liquors like whiskey and vodka, awareness is quickly growing. Sake exports have risen dramatically over the past decade, especially in Western countries where the drink is only beginning to find its audience. 

We’re excited to see how the rest of the world adopts sake into its diverse traditions.

World Sake Day

Did you know October 1 is World Sake Day? Once a national event in Japan, this date marks the transition from the rice growing season into the sake brewing season. 

Here are some ways you can celebrate World Sake Day:

  • Attend a sake tasting: Like wine tasting events at vineyards, sake tastings have become a popular way to try new varieties and learn how to pair them with food. 
  • Order sake with dinner: Go out to eat and try pairing your order with a good sake.While you’re most likely to find it at Japanese and other Asian restaurants, its recent rise in international popularity has landed it a spot at many different establishments. 
  • Tour a brewery: Learn more about the sake brewing process and its history by taking a guided tour of your nearest sake brewery. If you don’t live near one, you can also find great tours online.

You can also just buy a bottle to try at home. Whether you’re cooking a usual weeknight meal or throwing a dinner party for family and friends, having sake with your meal is a simple way to participate in this exciting tradition.  

Make Your Own Traditions With Takara Sake USA

Now that you know a little about sake culture in Japan and abroad, you may be wondering how you can try it for yourself. That’s where we can help. At Takara Sake USA, our goal is to help the world experience sake in a new way. We brew a wide variety of delicious sakes for beginners and enthusiasts alike, so everyone can be part of the drink’s rich legacy. 

Ready to dive into sake culture? Browse our products online to get started. You can also learn more about sake by reading our blog.

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