What Is Sake: Japan’s Favorite Alcoholic Beverage

Sake is a staple in Japan, originating there almost 2,500 years ago, but it’s relatively uncommon in America.

Sake poured into 2 shot glasses surrounded by flowers

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.

What Is 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.

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
shelves with different types of 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.

sake being poured out with rice grains behind it

The sake making process is unlike other fermentation processes, relying on highly milled rice.

Preparing the Rice

You know the answer to what is sake, and that sake comes from fermented rice. So it makes sense that sake brewing begins with 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.

Koji Making

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.

koji fungus spores

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.

Fermentation and Processing

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.

traditional sake fermentation steamers

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.

Aging and Bottling

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.

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.

traditional ceramic sake glasses

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.

Top Sake Brands To Try

If you’re ready to dive into sake, here are a few top brands to look for to drink sake.


First, Dassai sake is one of the most popular sake brands around. They have a dedication to producing quality, artisanal sake.

The flavor profile of Dassai is very fruity and sweet. It usually has hints of melons or other mild fruits while retaining a savory, rich finish.

Unlike some brewers, Dassai exclusively uses high-quality rice and an extensive polishing process.


Next, Hakkaisan sake is another premium sake brand. It’s no wonder that the name has become popular in the sake scene as people search in America for more sake.

Hakkaisan uses only pure water from melted snow. The mountain water brings a refreshing aspect to the sake and lets the flavors of the alcohol shine.

It’s usually a sharper alcohol with a delicate balance between acidic and sweet, hovering at a place that enhances your umami senses.


Kubota sake is another fruity option with some floral notes. The sweet drink usually has notes of cherry, mango, and pear.

The Kubota company has a dedication to preserving Japanese culture. They also are in complete control of the sake process, including growing their rice.

After drinking Kubota sake, enjoy a moment to appreciate the other fine art of Japanese washi paper they use for the label.


Next, Shichida sake is a fruity option that usually has a thicker density than some other brands. It pairs sweet notes of honey with tarter options like sour apples.

The Shichida sake still has a powerful umami factor. It has a unique blend of kinds of rice that creates a different style of sake than other brands.

Some of their sake tend to have higher alcohol content. Shichida may have what you’re looking for if you’re searching for a strong sake.


Unlike many of the fruitier sakes, Kurosawa is a nuttier blend. The Kurosawa sake is usually a bit earthier and filled with umami flavor.

Instead of starting on a sweet note, you can enjoy the richer tastes the entire time. This sake also features fresh mountain water in the brewing process.

Kurosawa is a widespread brand in the US and has had deep roots in America since 1998.

Nanbu Bijin

Finally, Nanbu Bijin is a world-famous sake brand that has won awards for its quality sake. They are also one of the first certified vegan sakes.

The Nanbu Bijin sake is typically sweet, with some products like their Ginjo having almost cotton candy aromas. Still, their sake tastes fruity and finishes on a crisp note.

Despite the sweetness, sake will typically finish with a bold umami flavor that pairs well with food.

Frequently Asked Questions

Sake is a complex drink, unlike most other beverages, so here’s a bit more information about sake to answer your frequently asked questions.

Is sake a liquor or wine?

Defining sake can be challenging because it doesn’t fall into an exact category. While sake is also called rice wine, it isn’t exactly a wine.

Still, liquor is usually from a distillation process. Sake is from fermented rice and doesn’t have distillation, so it’s not liquor.

Overall, the fermentation puts it closer to wine. Realistically, the process is different than both wine and beer.

Is sake just vodka?

No, sake is different from vodka. The similarity the alcohols share is that both can be clear.

Sake ranges from being clear to slightly yellow or cloudy. It has a sweet, complex taste and is the result of the fermentation of rice. It’s not liquor and comes from Japan.

Vodka is fermented potatoes or cereal grains that undergo distillation. The liquor originates in Poland, Russia, or Sweden. It usually has very little taste by itself.

Can you get drunk on sake?

Yes, sake can get you drunk if you consume enough of it. The alcohol content for sake generally ranges between 13-17%.

This percentage equates to sake being a bit stronger than most wines. Sake may not get you drunk quickly, but it certainly can.

What does sake taste like?

Different types of sake may have slightly different flavors, but generally, sake has a very mild or bland taste. Usually, people describe sake as sweet.

The sweet notes of sake come from fruity or floral notes. It’s usually a smooth drink that can be comparable to white wine.

Most importantly, sake leaves a strong umami aftertaste. It’s similar to mushrooms or potatoes and helps the drink pair with dishes.

Final Thoughts

Sake is a lovely drink from Japan that people have enjoyed for centuries. It’s a complex, flavorful beverage that is mild enough to savor with most meals.

If you’ve never had it before, you can enjoy looking forward to trying out sake in its diverse forms. One of the fun parts of trying sake is that you can experiment with how you serve it.

Try out this drink today, and you may always see rice differently.

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

Written by Lauren McKenna

Lauren is a soon to be Temple University graduate. Her love of travel has introduced her to food and drinks from all over the world. She provides MyBartender with a global view of all things alcohol.

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