Our Guide to Sake

Sake poured into 2 shot glasses surrounded by flowers

Sake is a staple in Japan, originating there almost 2,500 years ago, but it’s relatively uncommon in America.So what is sake? This beverage is a fermented drink made from rice. It’s a unique alcohol, unlike almost any other type.The refreshing drink has a rich history, subtle flavor, and various serving methods. Here’s everything you need to enjoy sake.

First, let’s take a closer look at what Sake is. Sake is the result of a unique fermentation of rice. It’s a fermented beverage, unlike distilled alcohol or liquors. However, it also uses a distinctly different process from beer or wine. This drink usually is clear or slightly yellow, and many describe it as sweet and mild. Generally, it packs 14-16% alcohol.

A Brief History

It can help to understand some history to answer the question of what is sake. The Japanese began making sake 2,500 years ago. At this point, people would drink sake to mourn the dead. For a while, this Japanese alcoholic beverage was exclusively a special designation sake for emperors or festivals.

traditional sake barrels in tokyo japan

Over time, sake production evolved to include modern fermentation processes. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines developed this brewing method. Despite existing for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the 17th century that it became popular to drink sake. When this alcoholic beverage hit main cities, it quickly spread.

In the 17th century, the brewing process was still a bit different. Drinking sake at this point, you would have had a thicker beverage. The rice polishing ratio was slightly different for a more dense, sweet sake.

When the modern period hit, the sake industry took off with a more manageable production process. Sake making sped up by new breakthroughs in pasteurization and usage of lactic acid. Today, sake is often found in Japanese restaurants and globally. Japan’s national beverage has come a long way.

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Types of Sake

Now you can answer the basics of what is sake, but other types of sake are popular. The most important types of sake are:

  • Ginjo
  • Daiginjo
  • Honjozo
  • Junmai
  • Unpasteurized sake
  • Cloudy sake
  • Sparkling sake
  • Long-aged sake

Gingo and daiginjo are both premium sake varieties with more rice polishing than traditional sake, and daiginjo has the most polished rice. Both have fruity flavors.

Honjozo is a different type of sake because it usually includes an added neutral alcohol. This sake taste is well-balanced and a bit less sweet.

Junmai sake has only rice and koji and doesn’t use some refining processes. This flavor profile may change between sake bottles because it doesn’t have a standard ratio for polished rice.

Unpasteurized sake is simple sake that doesn’t undergo the pasteurization process. Some describe the sake taste as fresher this way.

Cloudy sake is a visibly different type of sake because the rice grains aren’t filtered as finely. It creates a slightly cloudy liquid that is a bit thicker and soft while you drink it.

Sparkling sake is relatively modern and usually served chilled. Unlike ordinary sake, it has carbonation and typically a lower alcohol content.

Finally, long-aged sake is kept for a long time to achieve a mild taste.

How Sake Is Made

After covering some of the varieties of sake, you might be wondering more about how Japan makes ordinary sake. The sake making process is unlike other fermentation processes, relying on highly milled rice.

Sake rice usually isn’t table rice. This special rice has thicker grains that hold up to rice polishing. Non-premium sake may use the same rice we eat, but specialty options create the best sake. Pure rice undergoes polishing, which removes the outer husk of the grain to prevent it from impacting the flavor. Fats, minerals, and proteins in this layer could be unpleasant in a sake taste. After, a sake brewery will wash and soak the rice in water for an extended period. The rice should absorb the water before it moves to steam. Now, the rice is ready for sake making.

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A crucial step in making sake is the koji. Koji is a multi-use term for a type of safe fungus that Japan also uses for soy sauce and miso. After adding the fungus, the rice is also koji rice. Brewers will inoculate the steamed rice with koji fungus spores. For the spores to do their job, the room must stay around 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Workers will knead the koji rice carefully to stimulate the fungus. Over time, the fungus breaks down starches in the grains to create sugar. If you’re familiar with beer brewing, it’s similar to the function of malt.

Now it’s time for this Japanese alcoholic beverage to get its alcohol. Unlike other drinks, sake utilizes multiple parallel fermentation. Brewers add high-quality yeast to the rice with water and lactic acid. For weeks, yeast and steamed rice mix to allow the fermentation process time.

Once fermentation is complete, the rice mixture is removed and filtered. Usually, this involves mashing the mixture through a fine cloth. The sake liquid squeezes through, leaving the rice cake behind. Sake usually goes through a second filtration method, either with activated charcoal or by allowing the liquid to settle. After some time, sediments will collect at the bottom that brewers will remove. Finally, some sake will go through pasteurization at a high temperature to sterilize the drink.

Sake benefits from a short aging process where bitter tastes will mellow out. The minimum time for the sake to age is around six months, with most sake storage lasting closer to a year. For a sake to be long-aged, it has to store for at least three years.

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After the waiting period, breweries fill sake bottles and ship them out. Sake bottles may label themselves between sweet or dry by using a nihonshudo scale, which measures density. A higher nihonshudo is a dry sake with a low thickness. Usually, you will find sake in dark bottles. This selection isn’t just for aesthetics because UV lights can harm and alter the flavors of sake. Bottled sake usually lasts about a year and stores the best in a cool, dark place.

How To Drink Sake

After all this info, you’re probably ready to try sake. Serving sake can be a fun experience because you can experiment with your sake pairs. Starting with your glassware, you can serve sake in any cup. Traditionally, sake cups are small, open porcelain cups that mimic bowls. If unavailable, wine glasses are usually the best option for their thin lips and wide mouths.

You can decide between heating the sake to have it served hot or slight refrigeration for served chilled. Hot sake is the traditional method, which might make it a bit sweeter. Conversely, cold sake can become too cold and lose the extra fruity sake aromas and flavors.

The refreshing taste of good sake often goes with meals because the mild flavor enhances other flavors. Fish, in particular, and other Japanese cuisine make fantastic options to enjoy with sake.

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

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