The term sake is becoming increasingly more popular as more and more tourists around the world show heightened interest in Japan and thus the intricate Japanese food and drink culture involved.
Whilst it does have a smaller following than that of cult-inducing favourites such as ramen, sushi, and beer, sake definitely commands a more dedicated, passionate following. Those who learn to appreciate this tasteful slice of Japanese life tend to never look back.
But before to discover all you need to know about Japanese sake, make sure you check out our collection of 4 Japanese sake sets available in our store. It’s the ideal sets to enjoy Japanese Sake with your friends at home!
What is Japanese Sake (Nihonshu)?
Sake is essentially an alcoholic Japanese beverage. For those who haven’t come across sake before, it actually has two different meanings, and which one it refers to will actually depend on who you’re talking to. It’s a bit confusing but don’t worry, we will make it easy to understand!
If you’re speaking to a non-Japanese person, the term sake denotes a specific alcoholic drink that is made from fermented rice, and it differs from beer and wine and sochu and any other alcoholic beverages.
However, if you’re speaking to a Japanese person, sake will actually refer to just alcohol in general. Their word for sake, the fermented rice alcoholic drink, is actually ‘nihonshu’. So when you visit Japan, the best would be to ask for “nihonshu” to be 100% sure the Japanese person will understand what you want.
How is Sake produced in Japan?
The process of producing sake is actually quite unique and intricate. In fact, it’s so interesting to some that there exists certain sake breweries in Japan that host tours for visitors to see firsthand just how detailed the production process is (and of course, to try some samples of sake you probably wouldn’t be able to get your hands on anywhere else!).
If you’re interested, check out this tour here which happens right in Ome, Tokyo, which allows you to experience a brewery that’s existed for over 300 years. It’s a super interesting experience to try while you are in Japan. You will also be able to taste the different sake they produce in the brewery.
On paper, the production of sake seems quite simple. The process essentially involves fermenting rice for a few days, during which the starches in the rice will convert into sugar, and eventually alcohol. However, these processes have been refined for centuries, and each step has been timed down to the second to ensure the most full-tasting beverage. For example, one of the first steps to producing sake is to ‘polish’ the rice.
This actually happens before the fermentation. It involves each rice kernel being ‘polished’, i.e. removing the outer layer of each grain until only its starchy core remains. For this process, the rule of thumb is that the more rice has been polished, the higher the classification level.
Once the wine is filtered in the final step, the liquid will come out as a slightly discolored white. The alcohol content of sake generally stays within the 14% – 16% mark, however, there are exceptions, such as the “Genshu” variety, which generally boast between 18% – 20% of alcohol content.
The process is an important part of producing great sake, but an equally important factor is the ingredients used. The foundation of a quality tasting sake starts with premium and pure rice (also known as ‘Junmai’ in Japanese), clean water, koji mold, and yeast. This type of sake is referred to as pure rice sake.
However, once additives such as sugar and additional alcohol is added to the sake, it becomes non-pure rice sake. Whilst ‘Junmai’ may sound as though it’s the premium alternative, this is not always the case as it does depend on the person’s palette. So as you can see, in a very Japanese way, many small intricate details come together to create the perfect bottle of sake.
The Different Types of Sake (Nihonshu) in Japan
If you want to show off a bit to your Japanese friend, just learn about a few of the more popular types of sake that exist and you’ll already know more than 95% of travelers!
To start, you should know that sake is classified by several factors, including the type of rice that is used in the production process (there are more than 70 types of rice, by the way!), the region in which it is produced, the level of polish the grains have received, the actual unique brewing process, how it is filtered, and so much more.
To start beginning to fully appreciate sake, learning about the basics of the various types of sake is a great way to start. From there, you can try and determine which might be your cup of tea, and explore from there! Whilst learning about every.single.type of sake might be a handful (there are quite a few!), the ones we list below are ones that you will come across more often and thus will find it easier to order spot out.
- Junmai – As mentioned earlier, junmai refers to pure rice sake. It also means that the rice has been polished to at least 70% of the rice grain. Generally speaking, (although not always), junmai sake tends to produce a rich, full-body texture with an intense, slightly acidic flavour. It is usually served warm or at room temperature.
- Honjozo – This particular sake has had some alcoholic content added to it. Its rice grains are usually polished down to at least 70% as well. Honjozo is much lighter than junmai, and is generally easier to drink, both warm or chilled.
- Genshu – This type of sake, as mentioned before, has the highest alcohol content, sitting at between 18% – 20%. It is not diluted with any water at all.
- Amazake – This is a variation of sake, served particularly at winter festivals in Japan across multiple vendors. It is a sweet, thickened sake-like drink that’s either got very low or even zero alcohol content.
- Namazake – Whilst more sake is pasteurized towards the end of the production process, namazake is not, thus making it a fresh type of sake that either needs to be consumed immediately or refrigerated (but not for long!).
- Nigorizake – This type of sake is not fully filtered at the end of the production process (most are, giving it a slightly milky yet clear look). Nigorizake is only partially filtered, which results in a relatively cloudy, murky liquid which may often contain rice pieces from fermentation. It’s one of the sweet sake varieties.
- Sparkling Sake – This is a rather modern sake on the traditional drink. During recent years, breweries have started to add sparkling sake to their lineup. It usually involves bottling up the sake during the fermentation process, which results in a build-up of bubbles.
- Koshu – This is an age-old favourite. Whilst most sake is drunk within weeks or months of production, koshu sake is aged in barrels for much longer, for a more refined, earthy flavour and darker liquid colour.
- Futsushu – Whilst definitely not always bad, futsushu is often on the cheaper end of the scale. The rice has barely been polished (somewhere between 70% to 93%), and often has the reputation for producing an affordable but heavy hangover.
- Jizake – This just means ‘locally produced sake’. Most of these are brewed in micro-breweries, and because they’re produced by locals, often fare well with local produce.
How To Choose Your Nihonshu in Japan?
Choosing your particular sake might be a bit difficult if you’re looking for the ultimate experience. Depending on where you are, what season it is, what food you’re pairing it up with, etc, just a quick glance at the sake menu in an izakaya (for example) might completely throw you. However, here are a few tips on what you should look for when choosing a sake:
- Always ask the store for recommendations first. This is the number one rule, only because most employees will know exactly what they’re talking about, and therefore be able to recommend the best sake to sample, or to pair with what you’re eating.
- In colder weather, ‘atsukan’, or hot sake, is preferred, whereas in warmer weather, ‘reishu’, or chilled sake, is preferred.
- If you want the premium experience, usually served at room temperature, go for the daiginjo or junmai daiginjo (at least 50% of rice is polishes = premium grade). The flavours are more complex, refined, delicate and balanced. If you’re after a boozy night out and want to spend as little as possible whilst still sampling some sake, go for the futsushu.
Just for your information, my personal favorite is junmai daiginjo but it may be different for you!
If you are interested in tasting a lot of Sake in Japan, you can book this All-You-Can-Drink Sake Tour in Tokyo.
The Best Sake In Japan – The Popular Nihonshu Brands
Of course, with any type of alcoholic beverage, there will always be a few brands that rise above and beyond the rest that produce consistently quality, well-received products that deserve some mention. Below are some of the most popular and famous brands of sake across Japan:
Everyone who is part of the sake scene will have heard of Juyondai. It’s one of the highest ranked sake brands in the world. It’s got a distinct smooth texture and sweet flavour, with hints of vanilla that sets it apart from the rest. Its allure can also be found in the fact that it’s not readily available everywhere, so you have to hunt for it.
Not all great brands produce premium products. Kubota is a popular sake brand hailing from Niigata which produces decent sake at an affordable price. It will produce a slightly dry taste when served chilled, but will instantly soften when it is warmed up.
Hailed as one of the most well-balanced brands of sake, Denshu is a sake for those who prefer a sweet, gentle taste that goes down very easily.
Another one that is a fairly balanced sake, Hiroki, is one that makes a great choice any meal, and a great gift at any party.
Another famous brand hailing from the wonderful city of Niigata. Midorikawa translates to “green river” in Japanese, and it’s another well-priced, perfectly balanced sake that’s a great addition to a picnic, dinner, party, or celebration.
Sake Etiquette in Japan – How To Drink Nihonshu
By now, you should know that whilst the Japanese are advancing in lifestyle, culture, and technology much faster than many other countries, its charm and unique characteristic lays in its conclusive ability to keep much of its century-old traditions alive. That includes the sake etiquette that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Below we’ve listed down the basic rules to be mindful of when consuming sake, especially in a formal setting:
- Unlike in western culture where it’s often free-pour for everyone and anyone, when drinking sake in a group, you will always pour for other people, but never fill for yourself. To stay true to the Japanese etiquette, you will need to wait for someone else to pour your sake for you, even if you’ve topped up everyone else’s cup for them.
- When pouring sake, remember to place both your hands on the flask, regardless of how small the bottle is. This is a sign of respect.
- When receiving the sake that someone else is pouring for you, hold the small ochaku cup in the palm of one hand, whilst resting the fingers of your other hand on the side. Again, this is a sign of respect.
- If you’re drinking in a formal setting, and there is obvious seniority, be mindful of the order in which you pour sake. Start with the oldest/most senior person and work your way down. For seniors, you will need to use the two hand method of pouring, whilst for juniors you may use just one hand. When receiving, you will need to receive with two hands if a senior is pouring, whereas if a junior is pouring you can use one hand.
- If you’re drinking in an informal setting, one hand can be used to pour and receive.
- It is common to raise your glass for a toast once everyone’s been poured a drink. You will say “kanpai!”, and clink your glasses together. Make sure that the rim of your glass clinks with the rim of their glass, but gently. If you’re a junior, you must make sure that the rim of your glass touches below the rim of their glass.
All rules and regulations aside, the act of consuming sake is something quintessentially Japanese, and is a great way to experience their delicate and detailed culture.
Whilst there will always be nuances that foreigners cannot even begin to understand, just knowing the basics of what sake is, how to consume it, and how to enjoy it in a group setting will be enough for a memorable experience.
Sake is addictive, not just the taste and the wonderful sensation you get from drinking it, but the idea that there are so many varieties to try, so many complexities in the brewing process to pick apart and understand of various types, and of course, the idea that you’re gaining knowledge and making a hobby of something that’s Japanese in nature but enjoyable worldwide by anyone.
For more content about popular drinks in Japan, you can also read this article: Sake vs Soju vs Shochu.
PS: Check out these blog posts in you want more info about Japanese Culture.