Sake is a traditional Japanese alcohol made from rice. It is sometimes referred to as “rice wine” but is technically more like beer in terms of how it’s produced.
Like beer, sake is made by fermenting its core ingredient. Rice is polished to remove oils and proteins before undergoing a two-step fermentation process in which starch converts to sugar and sugar converts to alcohol.
Polishing is a vital step in the making of sake, with bottles being categorised according to how thoroughly the rice is polished. Some popular types of sake include Daiginjo, Ginjo, Honjozo, and Futsu. Daiginjo is the most premium style of sake as it has the highest polishing percentage: at least 50% of the rice is polished away.
If any of these sakes bear the prefix “Junmai” it means they are made from a pure recipe of rice, yeast, and water, with no extra alcohol added to the mix.
In Western countries, sake is most commonly served alongside sushi or traditional Japanese dishes. While it does pair extremely well with these foods, sake’s versatile, neutral flavour means that is can be enjoyed with near enough any dish. There is even a famous Japanese saying, “Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai,” which means "Sake doesn't get into fights with food.”
- Traditionally, it is considered rude to pour your own glass of sake. When drinking together it is customary for friends to serve one another as a sign of respect
- Sake’s name is a bit of a misnomer. In Japan, the word “sake” is used to refer to any alcoholic beverage. The drink Westerners call sake is known in its native country as “Nihonshu,” meaning “Japanese liquor.”
- Sake is typically stored in ceramic bottles called tokkuri and drunk from sakazuki: very small, wide-rimmed cups
- Although it’s becoming incredibly popular in Western countries, sake consumption in Japan is currently at an all-time low
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment sake was created but it’s believed that a primitive version of the drink was being made as early as 500 BCE.
Prior to any advanced production techniques, villagers would chew rice, spit it into large containers, and leave this mixture to ferment. Though it doesn’t sound particularly appealing today, this was actually a pretty sound method of creating alcohol as the enzymes in saliva work very well to aid fermentation.
In the 8th century a mold enzyme, koji, was discovered and used to create alcohol that is more similar to modern sake, becoming the blueprint of brewing for years to come.
From the 10th century onwards, religious temples were the primary site of sake production and thus established an intimate link between ceremony, celebration, and sake that exists to this day.
Brewing technologies significantly advanced in the early 1900s as the Japanese government launched The National Research Institute of Brewing and began running sake tasting competitions. The drink’s popularity grew and is now considered the national beverage of Japan.
What does sake taste like?
Sake has a very smooth, clean flavour. It is slightly sweet with subtle aromas of fruit and nuts, almost like a mild wine.
Is sake better hot or cold? How do I heat sake?
Sake can be drunk chilled, at room temperature, or warm – it all comes down to personal preference.
To make hot sake, gently heat a pan of water and take it off the stove when it begins to boil. Pour your serving of sake into a heatproof container such as a mason jar or clay pot and place it in the warm water for roughly three minutes. Carefully remove the container, pour your sake into cups, and enjoy!
What is a sake bomb?
A sake bomb is a cocktail of beer and sake. It is made by pouring a small glass of beer, placing two chopsticks across the rim, and balancing a shot of sake on top. You then firmly bang the table on each side of the glass, causing the shot glass to fall in and create a fizz.
How do I drink sake? Do I sip it or shoot it?
Sake should always be enjoyed by savouring small sips. It usually has an alcohol content between 15 and 20% so is mild enough to enjoy without mixing or shotting.
Does sake expire?
Because sake is often hand-crafted and free from preservatives, it has a relatively short shelf life. Most bottles of sake should be consumed within 1 year of its manufacturing date and must be kept in the fridge after opening.