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The Complete Guide to Sake: Includes History, Varieties, Drinking Methods, and Popular Brands

With awareness growing abroad, sake (Japanese alcohol) has become increasingly popular in recent years. Despite this newfound interest, there still seem to be few people with an in-depth knowledge of the drink. This article gives an all-round introduction to the main facts about sake including the history of the drink, the various types available, and what to look out for when choosing sake. 

About Sake

Sake is a fermented beverage that uses white rice as raw material. It is made by steaming the rice and adding koji* and water. It is then allowed to ferment and age before being filtered. For a drink to be defined as sake, Japanese law also stipulates that it must be below 22% ABV and made in Japan. As well as there being many varieties, a quirk of sake is that its flavor varies depending on the temperature it is served at. It is also an essential condiment in Japanese cooking. 

*Koji is formed by spores known as koji-kin being attached to steamed rice. These will breed if allowed to develop in the appropriate conditions (heat, humidity, etc).

The History of Sake

The origins of sake go back a very long way. In fact, it is estimated that the practice of producing sake using rice and koji dates back to between 300 and 200 BC. After that, there are many written works where you can find descriptions relating to sake but the most precise description of making alcohol from rice is said to appear in a book from the 700’s know as Harima no Kuni Fudoki (an early written record of Harima province). In the 900’s, a method for producing sake was established which was almost identical to the one used today. By the Edo period (1603-1867), various types of sake with characteristics distinctive to their producing region were being distributed and traded all over Japan.  

Making Sake: A Unique Process

Sake is made from fermented white rice. The "fermentation" comes from sugar feeding on yeast to produce alcohol. However, rice, as it exists normally, does not contain sugar, so first, it must be converted by the enzymes in the koji. From there, yeast is added to allow fermentation to take place. This is a complex but ingenious process, allowing sugar conversion and fermentation to progress simultaneously - a method particular to the manufacture of sake. In fact, sake is the only drink that produces an alcohol content of 20% using this fermentation method.

Choosing Your Favorite Sake: Understanding the Classifications

There are various categories assigned to sake. Classification starts by defining whether the sake is Junmai (pure sake with no added sugar or water). Junmai is made using only the basic raw materials - rice, koji, and water. Other classifications such as Ginjo and Honjozo are assigned based on whether brewers' alcohol has been added to balance out the flavor and aroma, or the degree to which the rice has been polished (known as the seimai-buai). Other categories are based on how cloudy the sake is, whether it is still or sparkling, and how it was pasteurized.

The Difference Between Sake and Shochu

Sake and shochu both act as bywords for Japanese alcohol. Both look fairly similar, so what are the specific differences? The first difference is the way it is made. Sake is made from brewers' alcohol (alcohol made from fruit or grain that has been fermented by yeast). With shochu, brewers' alcohol is distilled to form a liquor. The liquid is evaporated and the resulting vapor cooled so it becomes liquid again. There is also a significant difference in the primary ingredients. While sake is made from rice, shochu is generally made from potatoes or grain. As for the alcohol content, sake is usually 15-16% ABV whereas shochu is generally around 25%.

The Most Prominent Sake-Producing Regions

Sake is produced all over Japan. Though made using only rice and water, it is said that these ingredients have characteristics distinctive to the region in which they are grown. These characteristics influence the taste and flavor of the sake. The next section will introduce the special traits of the principal sake-producing areas of Japan.

A Collection of Sake Brimming with Charm (Kyoto)

Kyoto, the bustling former capital of Japan, still boasts an array of eminent sake brewers. Popular large companies such as Gekkeikan, Kizakura, and Takara are leading sake manufacturers. Fushimi Ward, with its many breweries, is the heart of the Kyoto's sake brewing industry. The main feature of Kyoto's sake is its mild taste due to the low amount of iron in the water which creates a clean and refreshing drink with low levels of acidity.

Japan's Biggest Sake Producer (Hyogo)

Hyogo Prefecture can lay claim to the highest sake production output in Japan with particular success along the coast of Kobe and Nishinomiya where you will find Japan’s leading sake production area, Nada go-go (the Five Villages of Nada which are Nishi-go, Mikage-go, Uozaki-go, Nishinomiya-go and Imazu-go). It is also known as a large producer of the famed sake-rice Yamada Nishiki. The prefecture boasts many sake makers that are renowned across Japan such as Hakutsuru, Kiku-Masamune, and Kenbishi. The sake really brings out the rice’s definitive umami flavor and has a rich and mellow flavor profile with fresh and light notes.

The Producer of Japan's Best Rice (Niigata)

Niigata, one of the leading sake-producing areas in Japan, boasts a flourishing rice farming community and the highest number of sake breweries in all of Japan. The sake is the product of high-quality rice and pristine water sourced from the melting snow and is notable for its crisp, dry taste. It acquires a refreshing sharpness from the soft water with its low mineral content and the slow careful fermentation during the intense cold of the winter months. Of course, Niigata has many famous breweries producing notable brands including Asahi-Shuzo Brewery’s Kubota and Hakkaisan Brewery’s own Hakkaisan.

The Regional Characteristics of Sake

Knowing the characteristics specific to each region makes choosing your sake much more interesting. Every brewery and each brand can be distinguished by its own unique traits but, to look at things on a broader scale, colder regions such as Hokkaido or Tohoku mainly produce dry sake whereas warmer regions like Shikoku or Chugoku in Western Honshu tend to produce sweeter sake. For a more detailed explanation, please read the related article.

Sake on a National Level: Getting to know the Biggest Brands

Japan’s expansive world of sake production comprises over 1,400 breweries producing more than 10,000 brands of sake (a rough estimate to allow for changes). Of course, we recommend trying as many brands as possible until you find the one for you! To find out more about the major sake brands, read the related article below.

All Kinds of Ways of Drinking Different Kinds of Sake

There are few drinks in the world that, like sake, can be enjoyed both hot and cold. However, it seems fitting that such a drink can subtly adapt to the climate and surrounds like the country where it was created shifts gently between seasons. You can vary the taste of your sake just by changing the temperature. From the chilled "reishu" to lukewarm "nurukan", or piping hot "atsukan", you can drink sake at a wide range of temperatures from around 5℃ to about 55℃.
There is also the unique practice of drinking "pufferfish hirezake". This involves immersing a grilled pufferfish fin into hot sake to bring out its scent and umami flavor. In recent years, sparkling sake has also become popular as the world of sake gradually expands.
By the way, when you order sake in a Japanese restaurant, it is good to remember it will be measured as 1-go (ichi-go), which is equivalent to 180ml.

Choosing Snacks and Dishes to Complement Your Sake

Sake can come with all kinds of flavors and qualities. Aromatic sake, light-bodied sake, and full-bodied sake are just a few examples. It is important to consider which dishes and snacks will best complement and enhance the flavor of your sake. Read the related article and try to appreciate how good they will taste. You might think that you can only pair sake with Japanese cuisine, but actually, many flavors from Western food and Chinese food will go well with your sake.

How to Store Your Sake and When to Drink It

Due to the sterilizing effects of alcohol, you should be able to keep sake for a long time before it goes off. Even so, you should know that after a while the taste will start to deteriorate. As a rough guide, regular sake* should last around 1-year from the date of manufacture. If it is namazake, i.e. unpasteurized, it should last for up to 9 months. The manufacture date is printed on the label of the bottle. Whichever variety you have chosen, it is better to drink it as soon as possible once the bottle has been opened. Furthermore, it is better to keep it refrigerated or out of direct sunlight in a cool, dark place. To preserve its taste, try to keep the bottle in an upright position.

*This is sake which has been pasteurized by a heat-treating process after being pressed and 2 days before being bottled.

Recommendations for Novices: The Best-Selling, Popular Brands

People new to sake generally find sweet or sparkling sake is comparatively easy to drink. If you are looking for a specific brand, Ozeki’s Gokujo-no-Amakuchi has a refined sweetness while Takara's Shochikubai Shirakabegura Mio is a popular sparkling option with sour notes mixed with the sweetness. Among the popular big sellers are Takagi Shuzo's Juyon-dai, a mild full-bodied, sweet sake with a fragrant aroma, and Asahi Shuzo's Dassai, which hit the news when the Japanese Prime Minister sent bottles to President Putin and President Obama. There are lots of famous brands that are worth a try.

The Premium Sake Brands You Should Try at Least Once

If you buy sake at an izakaya (Japanese pub) or supermarket, it will usually cost a few thousand yen (generally around 2,000 JPY for 720ml). However, among these are some premium sake that can cost tens of thousands (from around 10,000 JPY to 30,000 JPY). What are these sake like? Anyone who is interested should check out the related article.

[Great Places to Enjoy Sake]

This section introduces two establishments offering great sake in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Recommendation for Kyoto: KYOTO SAKE GARDEN

This popular izakaya has been running for over 30 years. You can enjoy a range of sake made by Kyoto breweries with the all-you-can-drink option. Compare the many choices ranging from popular brands such as Tamanohikari, Soku, and Sawaya Matsumoto, to multi-award-winning premium sake. There is plenty of food on offer including sashimi, Japanese pickles, and soba, but what is unique about the venue is that you can also bring your own food, so it is okay to buy something at the convenience store or supermarket on your way. And of course, you can pop out and buy something halfway through if you need to.

Price range: From around 3,000 JPY

Recommendation for Kyoto: KYOTO SAKE GARDEN

Le Shisemme Bldg. B1, 441-1 Ebisu-cho, Sanjo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Recommendation for Tokyo: Sushiya no Daidokoro Shibuya Branch - All-You-Can-Eat Sushi With All-You-Can-Drink Sake

Just a 5-minute walk from Shibuya Station, this popular sushi restaurant is in the perfect location. Here you will find an array of sake, carefully selected by the store’s sake-loving proprietor. Several brands mentioned in this article including Dassai, Hakkaisan, Kubota, and Mio, feature in the line-up. They also have an all-you-can-drink plan and offer a variety of foods. In addition to the main all-you-can-eat sushi menu, there is a side menu with plenty of options such as salad and fried chicken.

, Price Range: Lunch is around 1,500 - 2,000 JPY, Dinner is between 3,000 and 4,000 JPY
English menu available
English speaking staff available

Recommendation for Tokyo: Sushiya-no Daidokoro Shibuya Branch - All-You-Can-Eat Sushi With All-You-Can-Drink Sake

J+R Bldg. Side R B1, 33-12 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Enjoy Touring Sake Breweries

Those who want to gain a deeper understanding of the charms of sake should take a trip to a brewery or manufacturer for a cultural experience of traditional sake brewing. There are different items on offer in each place. You may get to see traditional tools used in the preparation and production of sake. Some places offer free samples, while others charge a fee. Some places even have a restaurant attached allowing you to enjoy sake alongside your meal.

Where to Buy Sake

Of course, breweries and sake manufacturers sell their products directly, but it is also easy to pick up sake at convenience stores, supermarkets and sakaya (shops specializing in selling sake). Besides these options, souvenir shops all over Japan stock local sake. You may want to buy a range of sake to compare when you get home.

Try Something Different: Other Food and Drink That Contain Sake

Sake is not just for drinking. Did you know there is a wide range of sake-based cocktails and sake-infused confectionery?

Sake-Based Cocktails

The most famous sake-based cocktails are the saketini and the Samurai Rock. The saketini is essentially a Japanese Martini. How it is made may vary depending on where you buy it, but one method is to mix 1-part sake to 3-parts dry gin, stir, then garnish with an olive like a regular martini. The samurai rock is made by mixing sake with rum syrup and is notable for its sharp acidity.

Confectionery Containing Sake

There are many Japanese confectioneries that contain sake. For example, the outer layer of Sake Manju is made from glutinous rice and koji⁠, the main ingredients of sake. This outer layer is wrapped around adzuki bean paste and steamed. Sake is used in everything from cakes and puddings to jellos and macarons. Kit Kats are one of the most popular chocolate snacks both in Japan and around the world. They come in a wide range of flavors, but did you know you can also get sake-flavored Kit Kats? The popular Kit Kat sake series, made using top-quality sake, is now on sale and proving to be quite popular. Special editions such as plum liqueur are available in addition to regular sake. Why not take some home as souvenirs?

What Else You Can Do with Sake?

Sake is not only good as food and drink, and it has many other amazing uses. For example, add a little sake to your bath water to enjoy soaking in a sake bath. It is believed to warm the body and offers many other health benefits. There are also many face lotions and skincare products that contain sake. It is an effective moisturizer that will leave your skin feeling replenished. Why not try it?

Has this article left you wanting to know more about the exciting world of sake? Anyone interested should definitely sample some of the brands and try some different ways of drinking sake.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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