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Japanese Sake: The Comprehensive Guide

What is Japanese sake?

Sake (pronounced sah-kay) is an alcoholic Japanese drink made predominantly from rice. It is a popular part of Japanese cuisine and can be enjoyed at home, in restaurants and at special occasions such as weddings. The word sake can also be used as a more general reference to any other alcoholic drink, and the term seishu is its legal name.

 

What does Japanese sake taste like?

The process of making Japanese sake is very complex, and much like wine, the taste of sake can vary depending on the brand. In 2010, there were over 40,000 brands of sake being made by 1,260 breweries, which means a wide variety in flavour. It can be fruity or woodsy, as well as sweet or dry. Changes in flavour can be dependent on everything from the quality of water used to make the sake (as the minerals affect the taste) to how much the rice is polished and soaked during its production. Flavour can also vary depending on the type of rice. There are nine different varieties of sake rice, including Gohyakumangoku rice and Yamada Nishiki and they all give unique flavour profiles.

 

 

How is Japanese sake made?

The process of brewing sake is different to the production methods which are used for making beer and wine. There are several methods for making sake, but generally the process involves mixing together rice, yeast, mould and water. The mould used is called koji, and can be made from the rice in the sake brewery. It is also used as an ingredient in miso and soy sauce.

 

Basic process of making Japanese sake:

  1. The rice is polished to remove husks and proteins on the outside of the grain. The more this is done the cleaner the flavour.
  2. The rice is washed and steamed.
  3. Some of the steamed rice is used to make koji (mould).
  4. Koji, rice and sometimes yeast is added to the remaining steamed rice. More of these ingredients are added later on.
  5. The mixture is then filtered and bottled for consumption.

 

How strong is Japanese sake?

Much like the taste of sake, the strength of each variation can change.  Generally, sake is 15% strength, making it about half the strength of vodka and whisky, but also stronger than wine and beer. However, sake can be as weak as 8% or as strong as 45% so make sure you check the label before drinking!

 

History of Japanese sake

Sake was first made over 2000 years ago, and was even referred to as the “drink of the gods” as it was part of the religious rites from an early form of the Shinto religion. Wet rice cultivation was introduced to Japan in 300BC, and it is thought that sake began to be brewed in the country shortly after this. However, the origins of sake can be traced back as early as 4000 B.C.

In sake’s early days, villagers would chew and spit out rice and nuts into a communal bowl- this was the first form of polishing and it was necessary for fermentation. The rice and nuts were then cooked in clean water and made into a mash. When people discovered that adding koji and yeast also caused the rice to ferment, this process was discontinued and it became much easier to produce.

In the 1300s, sake became Japan’s most famous and important drink as it started to be mass produced. Since then sake has continued to flourish, and even gained a reputation for itself on an international scale.

How to serve Japanese sake

Sake is traditionally drank in small ceramic cups called sakazuki or choko, and served from flasks named tokkuri. Our traditional range of authentic Japanese sake sets are designed and made in Japan and are great for dinner parties or for casual drinking at home. They also make the perfect gift for a friend or family member, or a great addition to your personal collection of tableware.

Although Japanese sake can be enjoyed at your leisure there are traditional customs you can follow to serve sake like the Japanese do. Sake should be poured into the tokkuri for each guest. If you are of a higher status such as a boss or elder, then you should only use one hand to pour. You should not fill your own cup as it is the job of the guest to make sure that the host’s cup is never empty. If you are in a formal situation then it is important to hold your cup whilst someone is pouring. Again, use one hand if you have a higher social status and both hands if you are lower.

 

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Temperature of Japanese sake

The temperature at which sake is served at can differ greatly depending on which type you have bought. It can be served chilled, warm or at room temperature. As a general rule, cheaper sake is served warmer and premium sake is served chilled.

Traditionally, sake was served warm at a temperature similar to your body. This was because it tended to have a much rougher, fuller and sweeter flavour than today’s brands as they were produced in wooden and cedar casks.

Today sake is much different. Brewing advancements have created new flavour profiles which previously would have been extinguished by the wooden casks, and these can be ruined by heat. Therefore, many types of sake are now served chilled or at room temperature (which is always the safest bet).

 

Type of SakeBest Temperature to Serve
Rich types of sake e.g. junmai and honjozoRoom temperature or warm (body temperature).
Fragrant and premium types of sake e.g. ginjoLightly chilled, around 10 degrees Celsius. Any colder will damage the flavour.

 

How long does Japanese sake last?

This changes with the type of sake, its storage conditions and whether or not the bottle has been opened. Although sake has no set expiry date as alcohol doesn’t rot, generally it is best to drink sake straight away as sake tends to be shipped from breweries when it is in its best condition.

In terms of expiration dates, unpasteurised sake tends to have the shortest shelf life before it starts to deteriorate in terms of taste. Pasteurised types such as Ginjo and Junmai might lst 8-12 months at their best as long as they are unopened. Storing your sake in a cool and dark place is the best way to prevent it from spoiling.

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