Unravelling the World of Sake: History and Culture behind the Sake Beverage

Embark on a journey to uncover the fascinating realm of the sake beverage, with us! This guide explores the history, stories, etiquette and culture behind sake beverage.

Read our Buyer's Guide to Sake, for more information on the production process. And how to pair food with sake.

As we delve into this comprehensive guide to sake etiquette, we will explore the origins, production process, different types, and serving rituals associated with sake beverage.

From understanding the intricate flavours to learning how to appreciate and pair this unique drink, this informative piece aims to provide sake enthusiasts with a deeper insight into the world of sake beverage.

Browse our Japanese Supermarket or our Sake & Shochu Collection!

Introduction to Sake

Understanding the Sake Beverage

Sake, often referred to as nihonshu in Japan, is a brewed drink made from fermented rice. Unlike wine, which is fermented from fruit; or beer, which is brewed from malted grain; sake is made from fermented rice. It is often called a rice wine, but in fact it’s brewed in a process more akin to beer making.

It begins with polishing rice to remove the bran, which affects the flavour and quality of the final product. Water, rice, koji (a type of mould that breaks down the rice starch into sugars), and yeast are the four key ingredients in sake beverage production.

The fermentation process is unique, as it happens simultaneously, with the starch being converted into sugars and then immediately into alcohol.

This dual fermentation is what gives sake its distinctive taste. As we explore further, we'll discover the variations in taste, texture, and clarity, all of which contribute to the depth of the sake beverage world.

The History and Tradition of Sake

The history of sake is as rich and varied as the beverage itself, stretching back over a millennium. Sake's origins can be traced to ancient Japan, where it was first brewed in the Nara period.

It has been an integral part of Japanese culture and ceremonies ever since, often used in religious rituals, court festivals, and celebrations.

Over the centuries, the techniques and recipes for making sake have been refined, evolving from a spiritual offering to a popular commercial product. The tradition of sake brewing was historically a winter activity, as the cooler temperatures favoured the fermentation process.

The role of the Toji, or sake brewery master, emerged as an esteemed position, with the knowledge of sake production being passed down through generations.

Today, sake continues to be celebrated for its traditional roots, with breweries across Japan honouring the time-honoured methods while also embracing modern techniques to enhance the sake beverage experience.

The Sake Production Process

Key Ingredients in Sake Making

The production of sake is a careful blend of art and science, with four key ingredients at its heart:

  • rice,

  • water,

  • koji,

  • and yeast.

The type of rice used is critical, and there are specific strains, such as Yamada Nishiki, that are preferred for their high starch content and ability to absorb water. The rice must be polished to remove the outer layers, which can impart unwanted flavours into the sake beverage.

Water is another essential component dry sake, accounting for up to 80% of the final product. The mineral content in the water affects the fermentation process and the taste of the sake, with soft water generally leading to a sweeter sake and hard water yielding a drier profile.

Koji mould (Aspergillus oryzae) is then introduced to the steamed rice to convert the starches into fermentable sugars.

Finally, yeast is added to the mixture to begin the fermentation process, with different strains contributing to the sake's final aroma and flavour profile. These ingredients, combined with precise craftsmanship, define the unique character of each sake beverage.

Techniques and Methods in Sake Brewing

Sake brewing is a meticulous process that combines traditional techniques with modern methods. The process begins with rice grain milling, where the rice grains are polished to remove the outer layers.

The degree of milling (seimai-buai) greatly influences the taste, with a higher milling rate usually resulting in a lighter and more refined sake.

Next, the rice is washed, soaked, and steamed. Koji-making follows, where spores of the koji mould are sprinkled onto the rice to facilitate the conversion of starches into sugars.

This koji rice is then mixed with water and yeast to create the starter mash, known as shubo or moto, which is critical for a successful fermentation.

The main fermentation, or moromi, is where the sake truly starts to develop. It involves adding steamed rice, koji rice, and water to the shubo in three stages, a process known as sandan-jikomi.

Over the course of several weeks, the mixture ferments, with careful monitoring and adjustments made by the toji.

Once fermentation is complete, the sake is pressed to separate the liquid from the solids, pasteurised to halt fermentation and stabilise the flavour, and then aged.

These techniques, when executed with skill, result in a diverse spectrum of sake beverage and flavor profiles.

Diverse Types of Sake

Classification of Sake based on Brewing Process

Sake can be classified into various types based on the brewing process, each with its own unique characteristics.

  • Junmai-shu is pure rice sake, made without adding distilled alcohol, and often the warm sake has a full-bodied taste and slightly acidic flavour.

  • Honjozo-shu is similar but includes a small amount of brewed alcohol, which can enhance aroma and lighten the flavour.

  • Ginjo-shu and Daiginjo-shu are premium sakes that require precise brewing methods. They are made with rice that is more highly polished and fermented at colder temperatures, resulting in a light, complex, and fragrant beverage. The difference between Ginjo-shu and Daiginjo-shu lies in the degree of rice polishing; Daiginjo-shu has a higher polish rate, leading to an even finer sake.

  • Namazake is a type of sake that has not been pasteurised, retaining a fresh, lively taste. It must be kept refrigerated to maintain its quality.

  • Nigori-sake is a cloudy sake, as it contains rice solids that were not fully filtered out, offering a creamier, sweeter experience.

Understanding these classifications helps enthusiasts navigate the world of sake beverage and find their preferred styles.

Popular Varieties of Sake

Beyond the classifications based on the brewing process, there are popular varieties of sake that have gained prominence among connoisseurs. One such variety is Futsu-shu, which is often referred to as 'table sake'. This type premium sake is the most widely produced and consumed, offering a straightforward and approachable profile.

Another popular variety is Taru-sake, which is aged in cedar barrels, imparting a distinctive woodsy aroma and flavour that is quite different from other types ordinary sake. Koshu, or aged sake, has a deeper colour and a richer, more complex flavour profile due to extended aging.

Sparkling sake is a more recent innovation, catering to the global taste for effervescent beverages. It is lighter in its alcohol content and has a gentle fizz, making it a popular choice for festive occasions.

Umeshu, while not true sake, is a beloved plum wine made by steeping ume fruits in sake or a sake-based liquor, offering a sweet and tangy flavour that is highly enjoyed as a dessert beverage or aperitif. Each of these varieties showcases the versatility and adaptability of sake beverage to different palates and preferences.

Sake Tasting and Pairing

Guide to Tasting Sake

Tasting sake is an art that involves engaging all your senses. Begin by examining the sake's appearance, noting its clarity, colour, and any bubbles present.

Swirl the sake gently in the glass to release its aromas, then take a moment to inhale deeply, identifying fruity, floral, or earthy notes.

When tasting, sip a small amount and let it spread across your tongue. Notice the initial flavours, mid-palate sensations, and the finish. Is it sweet, dry, rich, or light? Does it have a smooth, creamy, or sharp texture? Assessing the balance of acidity, umami, and any bitterness is crucial to understanding the sake's profile.

To fully appreciate the sake beverage, it's important to serve it in the proper glassware at the right temperature.

Sake can be enjoyed when served chilled, at room temperature, or warmed, depending on the type and your personal preference. Remember that like any good wine, sake should be sipped and savoured, allowing the complexity of flavours to unfold with each taste.

Perfect Food Pairings with Sake

Pairing sake with food can elevate both the drink and the meal to new heights. The key is to consider the flavour profiles and weight of both the sake and the dish. For instance, lighter styles drinking sake like Ginjo or Daiginjo pair beautifully with delicate dishes such as sashimi or a simple salad, as they complement without overpowering the flavours.

Richer, more robust sakes like Junmai can stand up to heartier dishes, including grilled meats or fried foods. Their umami content harmonises with savoury flavours, making them versatile companions for a wide range of cuisine.

For spicy foods, a slightly sweet sake such as a Nigori can help balance the heat. Desserts, on the other hand, can be paired with fruity and floral sakes, or even an umeshu for a contrasting tartness. Remember, the best pairings most sake are ones that enhance the enjoyment of both the sake beverage and the meal, so don't be afraid to experiment to find your perfect match.

Buying and Storing Sake

Tips for Buying Quality Sake

When shopping for quality sake, it's important to read the label carefully. Look for the sake classification, such as Junmai or Ginjo, which will give you an indication of the flavour profile. The seimai-buai, or rice polishing ratio, is also listed on many bottles; a lower percentage generally signifies a higher-grade sake with more refined flavours.

Check the production date, as sake does not age like wine and is usually best consumed within a year or two of bottling. Some sakes, especially unpasteurised ones, should be consumed even fresher to appreciate their full flavour.

Buying from reputable sources, such as specialised sake shops or well-stocked liquor stores, will ensure that you're getting a product that has been stored correctly. Don't hesitate to ask the staff for recommendations or about the freshness of their stock. Lastly, consider the occasion and your personal taste preferences—whether you're looking drink sake for a casual drink or something for a special occasion, there's a sake beverage out there for everyone.

Proper Storage of Sake to Maintain Freshness

Proper storage is essential to maintaining the freshness and flavour of sake. It should be stored in a cool, dark place, away from direct sunlight and fluctuating temperatures. The ideal storage temperature is similar to that of a wine cellar, around 10 to 15 degrees Celsius. If you don't have access to a cool cellar or wine refrigerator, the back of your regular fridge is the next best option.

Once opened, a bottle of sake should be consumed relatively quickly, usually within one to two weeks, to enjoy its optimal taste. During this time, keep the sake bottle sealed tightly and refrigerated to slow down oxidation and flavour degradation.

For unpasteurised sake, which is more delicate, it's crucial to keep it refrigerated at all times, even before opening. As with any perishable product, if you notice an off-smell or an unusual taste, it's best to discard the sake rather than risk consuming a spoiled, alcoholic beverage. By following these storage tips, you can ensure that your sake remains as fresh and enjoyable as the day it was purchased.

A guide to Sake Etiquette

Sake etiquette is an integral part of Japanese culture, reflecting the respect and reverence that Japanese people hold for this traditional drink. By understanding and observing the customs associated with sake pouring, toasting, drinking, and pairing, one can fully appreciate the depth of tradition and craftsmanship that goes into each bottle of sake. Whether enjoying sake in a formal setting or a casual gathering with friends, following sake etiquette ensures a meaningful and enjoyable experience for all involved.

Pouring and serving sake

When it comes to pouring and serving sake, there are a few key points to remember. Firstly, sake should be served in small, ceramic cups called ochoko or in larger serving flasks known as tokkuri. When pouring sake for others, it's customary to hold the tokkuri with one hand and support the bottom with the other, ensuring a steady and controlled pour. It's also considered polite to pour for others before pouring for yourself.

Toasting and drinking sake

In Japanese culture, a toast, known as kampai, is a common way to celebrate and express goodwill. When raising your cup for a toast, it's customary to make eye contact with the person you are toasting and to hold the cup slightly lower than theirs as a sign of respect. After the toast, it's customary to take a sip of sake before setting the cup back down.

Temperature and pairing sake

Sake can be enjoyed at various temperatures, each bringing out different flavor profiles. Generally, sake is categorized into three temperature ranges: chilled (reishu), room temperature (jo-on), and warm (atsukan). Chilled sake is often served with lighter dishes or as an aperitif, while warm sake pairs well with heartier fare. When serving warm sake, it's essential to use a vessel called a choko or a small ceramic cup to retain heat.

Sake drinking etiquette

In addition to pouring and toasting, there are several other etiquette rules to observe when drinking sake. Firstly, it's considered polite to wait until everyone has been served before taking the first sip. When drinking sake, it's customary to take small sips rather than gulping it down. Additionally, it's polite to avoid refilling your own cup and to offer to refill others' cups instead.

Sake cups and sake flasks

Sake Cups (Ochoko)

  • Ochoko, also known as choko, are small ceramic cups used for serving sake. These cups come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from simple and rustic to ornate and decorative. Traditionally, ochoko are cylindrical or slightly tapered, with a flat base and a narrow opening, designed to capture the aroma of the sake.

  • Masu Cups: Masu cups are square-shaped wooden boxes traditionally used for measuring rice. They have become synonymous with sake culture and are often used in ceremonial settings or special occasions. Masu cups are symbolic of prosperity and good fortune, making them popular choices for toasts and celebrations.

  • Guinomi Cups: Guinomi cups are small, cylindrical cups with a wider opening than traditional ochoko. They are designed to enhance the aroma and flavor of the sake, allowing the drinker to fully experience its complexity. Guinomi cups are often used in casual settings or for tasting sessions, where the focus is on savoring the nuances of different sake varieties.

Sake Flasks (Tokkuri)

Sake flasks, or tokkuri, are vessels used for storing and pouring sake. These flasks are traditionally made of ceramic or porcelain, although glass and metal tokkuri are also common. Tokkuri come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with its own unique characteristics and aesthetic appeal.

  • Katakuchi Flasks: Katakuchi flasks are characterized by their wide, spouted opening, which facilitates easy pouring of sake. These flasks often have a simple and elegant design, making them popular choices for formal occasions and traditional tea ceremonies.

  • Hishaku Flasks: Hishaku flasks are tall and slender vessels with a narrow neck and a wide base. These flasks are often used for pouring sake during ceremonial rituals or religious ceremonies, where precision and accuracy are essential.

  • Chirori Flasks: Chirori flasks are squat and rounded vessels with a wide base and a short, stubby neck. These flasks are designed to hold a large volume of sake and are often used for serving sake in casual settings or large gatherings.

What does sake taste like?

In general, sake tends to have a subtle sweetness, derived from the natural sugars present in the rice. However, the level of sweetness can vary depending on the type of rice used and the brewing techniques employed by the sake master.

Some sake varieties may exhibit a more pronounced sweetness, while others may lean towards a drier, more balanced flavor profile.

Beyond sweetness, sake offers a wide range of flavor notes, including fruity, floral, and savory characteristics. These flavor profiles are influenced by various factors, such as the type of rice used, the yeast strain, and the fermentation temperature.

For example, sake made from Yamada Nishiki rice, often referred to as the "king of sake rice," may exhibit delicate floral aromas and a clean, crisp taste. In contrast, sake brewed from Gohyakumangoku rice may have a lighter, more fruity profile with hints of apple or pear.

The brewing process also plays a crucial role in shaping the flavor of sake. Sake can be classified into different grades based on factors such as polishing ratio, fermentation method, and aging process. Junmai sake, for example, is made with only rice, water, yeast, and koji mold, resulting in a rich, full-bodied flavor with a pronounced umami character.

On the other hand, Ginjo sake undergoes a more refined brewing process, with the rice grains polished to a higher degree and fermented at lower temperatures, resulting in a lighter, more fragrant profile with floral and fruity notes.

Another factor that influences the taste of sake is the water source used in the brewing process. Japan is renowned for its pristine water sources, which are often sourced from mountainous regions with high mineral content.

The quality and mineral composition of the water can impart unique characteristics to the sake, ranging from a clean, crisp finish to a more robust, mineral-driven flavor profile.

Furthermore, aging can significantly impact the taste of sake. While most sake is best enjoyed fresh to preserve its delicate flavors, some varieties benefit from aging, similar to wine. Aged sake develops deeper, more complex flavors, with notes of caramel, nuts, and spices emerging over time.

In summary, sake offers a diverse range of flavors and characteristics, ranging from subtle sweetness to complex umami notes. With its rich history, intricate brewing techniques, and unique flavor profile, sake continues to captivate enthusiasts around the world, inviting them to explore its multifaceted taste experience.

You can also find sake that is blended with other ingredients to give a more pronounced flavour. For instance Yuzu is sometimes blended with premium sake for a fresh bitter-sweetness. Yuzu sake makes a great aperitif or cocktail ingredient.


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