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Sake, pronounced “sah-keh,” is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. In Japan, sake is a general term for any alcoholic beverage, and what Westerners know as sake actually refers to “nihonshu,” the traditionally brewed and fermented drink. Sake is a category of its own with a unique brewing process and over 10,000 variations. Here we look at the brief history of sake, how it’s made and the unique regionality of Japan that influences the variety of sake we enjoy today.
Rice fields near Shirataki Brewing Company, Niigata.
The history and origin of Japanese sake goes back approximately 2,000 years when rice farming came from China. Since then, rice has been a staple in Japanese cuisine, and sake, which was originally used to celebrate rice harvests, is enjoyed with unique food cultures developed in each region of Japan. At its peak in the 19th century, there were over 20,000 sake breweries in Japan, but the number has declined to what is now just over 1,400 breweries due to war, government restructuring and the modernization of Japanese consumer culture.
Figure 1: Number of breweries in Japan from 1915 to 2017. *1
Sake, however, is not lost in Japan or around the world. In fact, trends are showing that the demand for more premium products is compelling breweries to specialize in higher quality sake, as well as experiment with new styles and flavors. This has resulted in the growth of different categories of sake; these days, breweries are producing sparkling and flavor-infused sake, as well as other unique sake that may appeal to wine drinkers and pair more suitably with other kinds of global cuisine.
Figure 2: Sales and quantity of exported Sake. *2
There are four ingredients to make sake: rice, water, yeast and koji. Special rice, called “sakamai,” is used for making sake and is prepared through rice polishing. Even the quality of water differs within each region of Japan and its minerality influences the speed of fermentation. Yeast is another ingredient that contributes to the aroma components of sake. Some strains of yeast are unique to the individual brewery or to the regions, and some are developed by the prefecture. The fourth ingredient, koji, is the mold that is carefully distributed over the rice to convert the starches to sugar. All of these factors shape the unique taste profiles of each sake.
A brewer making koji at Kamotsuru Brewing Company, Hiroshima.
Sake requires the extensive skills of brewers to control the delicate environment throughout the production process. Every detail — from selecting the right combination of ingredients to polishing, washing and steaming the rice, to closely monitoring the progress of fermentation — plays into the taste, aroma and appearance of the final product.
Sake is made of water, rice, yeast and koji.
Sake is often called “rice wine” because like wine, it features unique variations of flavors with subtle aromas. Sake is also likened to beer because it shares a similar brewing process. However, sake brewing is much more complex and requires a process called “multiple parallel fermentation” to drive the conversion of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol simultaneously (not sequentially as is the case with beer).
Fermentation processes of sake, beer and wine.
The misperception of sake being “hard liquor” stems from the harsh, throat-burning sensation one might taste when drinking cheap, hot sake. This sensation is usually a result of serving sake at extreme temperatures, which is not suitable for the sake as it loses the balance of flavors. The average alcohol content for sake is 15%-16% ABV, which rates high among fermented drinks, but not to the level of hard liquor.
Mr. Masahiko Fujio, the toji at Asabiraki in Iwate prefecture.
Having been managed by the owner’s family from generation to generation, many breweries have a long history dating back a few hundred years. The craftsmanship and skills of brewmasters, called “toji,” have been carefully developed and passed down, shaping the unique flavor profiles of each brewery in each region. This is a major reason why the sake of each region pair naturally with the local food. Thanks to the abundance of natural ingredients from the sea and the mountains, and the distinct climate differences in each season, sake delivers such diverse flavor characteristics that highlight the wide range of Japanese food culture.
Find sake from Tohoku and Hokkaido.Find sake from Kanto.Find sake from Chubu.Find sake from Chugoku and Kansai.Find sake from Kyushu, Okinawa and Shikoku.
Now that you have a little background knowledge about sake, let’s take a look at alcohol content, taste and other basic principles.
In order to be officially considered sake under Japanese law, the beverage must meet certain requirements regarding ingredients, pressing and filtration, and alcohol content. Sake’s alcohol percentage must be between 1% and 22%. This means sake ABV can be greater than the ABV of both beer and wine. Average sake alcohol content is around 15% or 16%.
Sake flavor profiles range from sweet to dry, light to full bodied. Several factors influence what sake tastes like, including but not limited to rice type, water source and serving temperature. Yamadanishiki rice, for example, can be used to express fine, elegant and refined flavors, while Omachi rice is optimal for creating earthy tones. Hard water, which is water with high mineral content, typically yields stronger-tasting sake. Soft water, on the other hand, usually results in a light and clean taste. Chilling sake enhances its crisp taste, while warming it can mellow and expand the flavors.
At Tippsy, each sake product page features tasting notes as well as a unique and interactive taste metrics grid, so you can pick sake that matches your preferences. Recommended serving temperatures and food pairings are also listed to help you better enjoy your sake. Check out the Sake Guide lesson on how to serve sake warm/chilled.
Sake is usually clear, but there are exceptions. Sake color can be affected by aging, flavoring and filtration. “Koshu,” or intentionally aged sake, can develop a straw or amber color. (However, if sake is not koshu and its color has changed since you purchased it, it is a sign that something may be wrong with it. See “Does sake go bad?”)
Sake that has been infused with a specific flavor, like yuzu sake, can take on the visual characteristics of that fruit; yellow, in the case of yuzu. Tippsy’s flavored collection also includes strawberry sake, which has a pinkish hue. Additionally, there is a type of sake called nigori that by definition has a cloudy, milky white color. This is because it is not as finely filtered as other types of sake, and still contains lees from the brewing process.
There are a few different sake bottle sizes available, but the most common is 720 milliliters. Tippsy’s quarterly Sake Box includes six small, expertly selected 300-milliliter bottles. Other sake bottle sizes on the market include 750 milliliters and 1.8 liters.
Like wine, sake prices can range from just a few dollars to thousands. The cost of a sake bottle depends on various factors, such as the amount of rice, skill and labor needed to make it. Rice polishing ratio, which indicates how much of the rice grain has been milled away prior to brewing, is usually a reliable price indicator. The more the rice grains are milled, the less rice there is to work with, so breweries have to compensate by using huge amounts of rice, which costs more money. This is why daiginjo sake, which has an RPR of 50% or less, is considered premium and is priced accordingly.
The brewing method also affects sake price. As opposed to automated processes, traditional brewing methods like kimoto involve a significant amount of manual labor, which can drive up the cost. Also, as with any aged alcohol, koshu sake tends to cost more.
If you’re new to the wonderful world of sake, it can be difficult to know where to start. There are many things to take into consideration when trying to find your ideal sake, such as flavor profile and price range. Each type of sake has its own special characteristics to offer. Read the Sake Guide lesson on sake types for more information.
Additionally, you can also get the help of Tippsy experts by taking our quick sake quiz. It will help guide you toward a sake that suits your palate based on your answers.
Tippsy’s tasting notes can help you choose the right sake, but here are five recommendations based on categories you might be considering.
The Dassai name is one of the most famous in the sake industry and our customers love it. This junmai daiginjo has a 45% rice polishing ratio and is best served chilled to experience its subtle, clean finish. A fruity and floral aroma gives way to a taste marked by orange and toasted notes. Pair this sake with light fare that won’t overwhelm its delicate nature.
Settle in for the evening with a warm, mellow junmai that will calm your senses. Light yet earthy, this sake carries the flavor of sweet rice. It’s an excellent choice for beginners who may never have tried heating sake before. Discover some of our best warm sake brands.
Yuzu is one of the most prominent fruits in Japan, used to flavor everything from desserts to alcohol. Both tart and sweet, this citrus fruit imbues the sake with a yellow color and a refreshing taste. This sake by Tsukasabotan Brewing Company is a wonderful introduction to both flavored sake and Japanese gastronomy in general. It’s also the perfect drink on a hot summer day!
This sake is described by Ichinokura President Hitoshi Suzuki as having “first-grade flavor” with a “second-grade price tag.” It’s light and sweet, offering notes of rice and banana. It’s also a prime example of sake local to Miyagi prefecture: high quality yet accessible. Try it at various temperatures! To learn how to choose a good sake within your budget, check out our blog article about the best affordable sake.
This rich nigori by Yamatogawa Brewing Company maintains a pleasurable balance of sweetness and acidity. It has the taste of pear, as well as the slightly more textured mouthfeel that is characteristic of this type of sake.
The question “what is sake?” seems simple on its face, but as you can see, it has more than one answer. There is a lot to know about sake, including its history, how it’s made and the various categories. It’s an epic tale that is thousands of years in the making, and there is so much for everyone — beginners and experts — to unravel.
Join Tippsy on a journey to discover all there is to know about one of the world’s most dynamic and enigmatic beverages.
References:*1 "How Japanese sake connect to the future", Sadamu Sasaki, 2012“Number of breweries”, Japan Sake Shochu Makers AssociationNational Tax Bureau*2 Nippon.com, “Sake Exports Sparkle, Setting New Record in 2018”, February 20, 2019.
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