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Sake: A beginner’s guide

Sake bottle shop

Sake is gaining in popularity outside of its birthplace in Japan. A traditional alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice grains, it actually has more in common with beer making than wine making, even though it’s often also known as Japanese rice wine.

In Japan, the sake as we know it is actually referred to as nihonshu, while the term sake refers to all alcoholic beverages in general. Regardless, most have accepted the use of sake as it is most commonly known in the English speaking world. Semantics aside, here’s everything you need to know about sake to get your bearings sorted.

How sake is made

Sake is made from four basic ingredients: rice, water, koji and yeast. There are only four inputs, making each element vital to the type and quality of the final product.

The type of rice matters greatly. Sake brewers don’t use the usual table rice we typically consume. Rather, specific grains are grown purposefully for making sake. Common types of rice used in sake include Omachi, Gohyakumangoku and Yamadanishiki (known as the king of sake rice), among many others. 

Generally, sake rice grains are bigger, have less proteins and have higher starch content than regular table rice. Sake rice grains are typically polished to remove the bran and outer layers of the grain before being used in brewing. Polishing is crucial for removing unwanted proteins and fats that often lead to off-flavours.

The water quality is also paramount. It’s often overlooked, but ultimately, water makes up the bulk of the end product. Most brewers use natural sources of water (like wells or spring water) for sake making, meaning the land and geography also comes heavily into play. The type of water used may sometimes even be listed on sake labels.

Cultivating koji in rice. Photo credit: Asahi Shuzo

Then there’s koji, a type of mold that produces enzymes used to break down the rice grains into edible sugars for the yeast to then convert into alcohol. In the sake making process, koji culture is typically spread atop steamed rice after it has been cooled, then left in temperature-controlled rooms to let the koji work its magic.

Sake yeast is used to convert sugars into alcohol when brewing. Akin to beer and wine brewers, sake brewers use specific sake yeasts when fermenting. Sake yeasts tend to have a higher alcohol tolerance. The type of sake yeast chosen will also have a great impact on the flavour and aroma of the final product.

Sake grading

The grade of the sake is the most common way (not necessarily the best way) consumers tend to interact with sake and base their buying decisions on. Here are the terms used and what they really mean.

These are regarded as the highest grade of sakes, and by definition, requires use of sake rice grains that have been polished to at least 50% of its original mass. The more polishing there is, the less protein and fat a grain generally has. Expect plenty of fragrant fruity aromas from Daiginjo sakes.

The second highest grade of sake is required to make use of sake rice that has been milled down to at least 60%. Fragrant fruit notes are still a hallmark of Ginjo grade sakes, but less so than Daiginjo sakes.

A lower grade than Ginjo, these sakes require the use of rice that have been polished to at least 70% of its original mass. Additionally, Honjozos are by definition made with the addition of brewer’s alcohol (see ‘Junmai’ below for more info on brewer’s alcohol).

This lowest grade of sakes are also sometimes known as table sakes. Typically only slightly polished to anywhere between 70-93% of the mass of the original rice grain, Futsushus are regarded poorly in the sake world. Drink them as shots, mixers or warm. Good Futsushu does exist, but can be challenging to find.

This term simply means “pure rice”. It is common practice to add neutral distillates (known as brewer’s alcohol) or other additives into sake to enhance or change the final profile of the sake. Therefore the term Junmai is used to distinguish between sake that is made purely using just rice, water, koji and yeast, to those made using additional alcohol or additives as well. 

People tend to associate Junmai sakes as superior to non-Junmai sakes, though that isn’t always true. Junmai can be a standalone term, or used as a prefix to Daijinjo and Ginjo sakes. Junmai Daiginjos are therefore sometimes regarded as the best grade of sake. Junmai cannot be prefixed onto Honjozos and Futsushus since they, by definition, require the use of added brewer’s alcohol.

Sake styles

The style of the sake refers to the way or fashion the sake is made, regardless of its grading. Just like how there are many styles of beers (saison, stout, IPA, etc.), you’ll find many styles of sake as well. Here are some common ones.

These are simply unpasteurized sakes. While sakes are typically pasteurized to increase shelf life, namazakes are not, allowing yeast to continue living inside the bottle. Brewers believe that living yeast adds to the flavour of sake. Because it’s unpasteurized, namazakes should be kept cold so that the yeasts do not activate and continue fermenting. They are often drank fresh in Spring since namazakes are not meant to be kept for long. 

Nigori sake
Nigori sake

Known as unfiltered sake, nigoris easily stand out with their milky white and cloudy appearance. The colour comes from varying amounts of rice particulates purposely left in the bottle. Nigori sakes tend to have a creamier texture and more sweetness. 

This is aged sake. Unlike the whisky and wine worlds, ageing isn’t seen as necessarily better for sakes, since most sakes are actually best drank within a year of production. Koshus are therefore not widely appreciated for that reason, and flavours can be rather erratic since there are no ageing standards set. Still, some appreciate them for their uniqueness.

These are sparkling sakes, meaning they are carbonated and bubbly. They are generally more refreshing and aromatic thanks to the carbonation that occurs usually from secondary fermentation that happens in the bottle itself.

Popular sake brands

Probably the most recognisable, popular sake brand right now, Dassai is Asahi Shuzo brewery’s claim to fame. The high-tech sake brewery is found outside the city of Iwakuni in Japan’s Yamaguchi prefecture. Their best selling products include the Dassai 45, Dassai 39 and Dassai 23, all Junmai Daiginjos, with the numbers at the back corresponding to their rice milling ratio. The Dassai Beyond is their most premium bottling, with milling ratios of rice going beyond those used in the Dassai 23, thus the name.

A highly dependable, classic sake brewery, the namesake Hakkaisan Sake Brewery located in Niigata prefecture is – in our books – one of the few long-time breweries that have managed to marry the best of tradition and modernity in a way that appeals to today’s discerning drinkers without sacrificing their roots. Find reasonably priced, quality brews in their lineup that reflect the broad range of flavours sake has to offer. Hakkaisan has something for novice and seasoned sake drinkers alike.

Highly prized and sought after, Takagi Shuzo brewery’s Juyondai is a cult brand in the sake world. They’re best known for producing sakes using different types of sake rice and coming out with limited-edition, small-batch bottlings. As they are a huge commercial success now, the Juyondai sakes most people can get their hands on today may no longer reflect the qualities most fell in love with from their heydays as a small, craft brewer.

Now you’re aware of these 3 labels, don’t stop there. Head out and explore the many, many sake brands out there. As with any consumer product, an illustrious brand doesn’t necessarily equate to good quality or suitability to your own tastes. Many prized finds are available at great value if you know where to look or who to ask.

How to drink sake

Warm or cold
Most sakes are meant to be drank cold. However, some sakes, when heated (never overly hot till it loses flavour), taste better as certain aromas and qualities become more apparent. That’s why there exists sakes out there meant to be drank warm. A general rule of thumb is that higher-end, quality sakes should be drank cold while lower-end sakes can be drank warm or cold. There are always exceptions to this, of course. Some sakes benefit from being closer to room temperature as well, and the influence of personal preferences and climate cannot be understated.

Traditional sake vessels include anything from short, stout ceramicware and shot glasses, to wooden masu box cups made from hinoki or cedar. You might even find sake served in a shot glass placed inside a masu cup with sake filled to the brim in both. That’s all fine and good, but the best way to appreciate sake however, is with a wine glass. This is not for show, but to allow better nosing of sake aromas that are quintessential to its appreciation.

Sake is great for food pairings

Food pairings
Sake is great for food pairings, perhaps even more so than wine is. The acidity, dryness and sweetness of a bottle are the main factors to consider when doing pairings. Sake can be a good palate cleanser for heavy and fatty dishes, but also excellent at enhancing umami and helps expand flavour profiles. In general, lighter styles of sake goes better with lighter food while richer, bolder sakes go well with heartier dishes. If uncertain, ask a resident sake sommelier or just experiment and find out. And don’t ever limit yourself to only Japanese cuisines.

Other sake terms

The SMV, or Sake Meter Value, is another common way people interact with sake. SMV is the measurement of the density of the sake relative to water, which then tells us how dry or sweet a sake is. Most sakes fall within the range of -10 to +10 (0 is neutral, although +3 is the industry median), with positive numbers being drier and negative numbers being sweeter. This is just a rough indication however, and many other factors (such as acidity and aroma) come into play when trying to find out the true perception of dryness or sweetness of the sake on your palate.

These are undiluted sakes. Since sakes usually ferment naturally to rather high levels of ABV (~17-20%), brewers tend to dilute them a little. That’s why you see sakes often retailing around 15% ABV. If the label says genshu, however, it means that the sake hasn’t been diluted. As you’d expect, genshus tend to be richer and more aromatic than seishu (diluted sake). But don’t assume that all genshus have higher alcoholic content. There are sakes hovering around 15% ABV that are still genshus. It all depends on the brewer’s intent on the end-product.

Now you know the basic terminologies and rules, feel free to challenge them and/or explore more for yourself. Some modern sake brewers have been changing the rules by abandoning the notion of sake grading, for instance, or by adding all sorts of interesting adjuncts into the brewing process. 

So head out and enjoy sake as you see fit. No one has the right to tell you how to enjoy sake the way you like it best. Kanpai!

Dannon Har

About the Author
Dannon Har is the Managing Editor of Spill. Discovering his innate gift for drinking only at a ripe age, he spares no time trying to find more delicious drops to imbibe during his time on Earth. When he’s not minding every detail at Spill, he spends his time concocting luscious libations and sharing them with folks that visit his home bar.