As the national beverage of Japan, sake is rich in history, tradition and flavor. It’s noncarbonated and characterized by its pale yellow or green color, mildly sweet flavor, and high alcohol content. Most sakes sit between 18% and 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). Enjoy sake on its own or mix it with other ingredients to make unique and delicious cocktails.
Keep reading to get a full overview of sake, including how it’s made, what it tastes like, and how it’s served.
History of Sake
Sake is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world, with its first known mention in the third century. It’s also mentioned several times in Japan’s first history book, “Kojiki,” compiled in 712 A.D.
The original process for making sake involved Chinese villagers gathering to chew rice and nuts. These villagers spit the leftover contents into a communal tub and left it to ferment. This process was ultimately abandoned when the ingredient koji was discovered, which is a filamentous fungus. Eventually, sake became an extremely popular beverage in Japan and remains that way today.
How Is Sake Made?
Sake is made out of four ingredients — rice, water, yeast, and koji. Making sake requires painstaking attention to detail and skill from the brewmaster. They must have control over the environment throughout the production process to create different tastes and aromas. The 12 critical steps to make sake include:
- Cultivating the koji
- Creating the yeast starter
- Main mash
- Bottling and distribution
The first step in making sake involves rice polishing — the milling of fresh brown rice grains to their starch-rich cores. After the rice is washed, soaked and steamed, koji is distributed over it. Koji turns rice’s starches into sugar. From there, the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. After the beverage is pressed, filtered and pasteurized, brewmasters will let the sake age for between three to six months before bottling and distributing it for consumption.
Is Sake Liquor or Wine?
Many people refer to sake as “Japanese rice wine,” but it doesn’t actually fall into the category of liquor, beer or wine. It features a bit of all three — it has one fermented ingredient like wine, is brewed like beer, and has higher alcohol content like liquor. Though it shares similarities to these other alcoholic beverages, sake is its own kind of alcohol because of the unique fermentation process.
Types of Sake
There are two main types of sake:
- Futsu-shu/basic sake: Futsu-shu is the most common variety and has a mild taste. Futsu-shu makes up two-thirds of worldwide sake production, and the rice in Futsu-shu is polished to 70% of its original weight.
- Tokutei Meisho-shu/premium sake: Tokutei Meisho-shu is more luxurious and makes up roughly one-third of worldwide sake production. It’s further separated into eight classifications — Junmai, Tokubetsu Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo, Nigori, Yamahai, and Genshu.
What Does Sake Taste Like?
Drinking cheap, hot sake might leave you with a burning taste in your throat, similar to liquor. However, high-quality sake that’s prepared correctly is satisfying and delicious. Flavors of sake range from sweet to dry, light to full-bodied.
One of the major influences on sake taste is how much the rice is milled down during the polishing stage. There are four broad ranges that rice can be milled down to, and each grade shaves weight from the rice grain, resulting in changes in flavor. Consider the rice polishing ratios and their classifications below:
- Junmai: The rice is milled to 70-100% of its original weight.
- Tokubetsu Junmai: The rice is milled to 60% of its original weight.
- Junmai Ginjo: The rice also maintains 60% of its original weight, sometimes less.
- Junmai Daiginjo: The rice is milled to 50% or less of its original weight.
Higher polishing ratios, like that of Junmai, means the rice grains still hold a fair bid of proteins, lipids, vitamins and minerals. The flavor will have more umami flavors than the other grades. Low polishing ratios, on the other hand, have a more delicate taste.
The other factor that affects sake taste is the addition of brewer’s alcohol. If added, brewer’s alcohol must be neutral and derived from a natural agricultural origin.
How to Drink Sake
The type of glassware sake is often served in has significance as well. At restaurants, cold sake is often served in a cup called an ochoko. These cups are small and circular, about the size of a shot glass. You can also drink cold sake out of a normal wine glass. Warm sake is often served in a tokkuri — a large, tall and thing pitcher.
Do You Drink Sake Warm or Cold?
You can enjoy sake warm or cold — the temperature at which you enjoy it is up to your preferences. However, the different varieties of sake are best served as follows:
- Junmai: Chilled to warmed
- Tokubetsu Junmai: Chilled to warmed
- Junmai Ginjo: Chilled
- Junmai Daiginjo: Chilled
- Nigori: Chilled
- Kimoto: Chilled to warmed
- Yamahai: Chilled to warmed
Generally, the warmer the sake is, the dryer it’ll taste. Hot sake tends to complement dishes that are high in fat, warm sake is often paired with light eats like sushi, and cold sake tastes great with sweet dishes.
Sake Shelf Life
Like wine, sake is best consumed soon after opening. If you’ve opened your sake bottle but won’t finish it in one sitting, cap it tightly and place it in the refrigerator. You’ll want to consume the rest of the sake within the next few days.
Unopened sake stays good for much longer, typically up to one year. Leave your unopened bottle capped and store it upright in a dark, cool location to ensure it lasts.
Browse Takara Sake’s Selection of Sake
Now that you know more about this delicious and fascinating beverage, you may be ready to try some for yourself. At Takara Sake USA, you can find a sake flavor that fits your tastes, whether sweet, fruity, acidic, savory or classic. Browse our selection of sake and find something to try today!