Champagne Travels in Japan

Sake 101

I’ve been a sake connoisseur for years, but if you aren’t as familiar with this drink, here are some basics you should know. On my recent trip to Japan, I had the chance to delve deeper into the world of this uniquely Japanese spirit. As one might imagine, the variety of sake available in Japan is impressive, to put it mildly—who knew there were so many different kinds! I was inspired by the many exceptional sakes I tried while in Japan to learn more about this beverage and wanted to share a bit of sake knowledge for the novice drinker. Consider this your crash course!

Fast Facts

I was surprised to learn that in Japan, ordering a “sake” will get you some strange looks. Actually, in Japanese, sake just means “alcohol” and isn’t specific to the rice wine that Westerners are usually thinking of. Instead, if you find yourself in Japan in need of a libation to accompany your sushi dinner, you should order nihonshu, which is the Japanese name for this type of alcohol. 

Unlike wine, which is typically categorized by the varieties of grapes used, sake is classified by how much of the outer layer of the rice grain is milled away. In general (though not always), the greater the percentage of rice milled away, the more refined the flavor of the sake. Good sake is typically made from rice that has been milled to 50 to 70 percent of its original size. 

The polishing or milling process is necessary to remove the protein and fatty substances on the outside of the grain. Sake rice has been engineered so that the starch is concentrated at the center of the grain, so the outer layers must be milled away before it can be cooked and brewed. 

How It’s Made

Though sake is commonly referred to as “rice wine,” this is somewhat of a misnomer. The process through which sake is made is actually more similar to beer than wine. Unlike wine, which is created by fermenting the sugars in the fruit, both beer and sake start with a starch base. Then, the starch is converted into sugar, which fuels the fermentation process. In beer making, this process happens linearly: first starch becomes sugar, and afterwards the sugar becomes alcohol. With sake, on the other hand, these processes happen simultaneously. Who knew!

After the rice is polished to the right size, it is washed and soaked to prepare for steaming. Once the rice has been steamed, it is left to cool before roughly 20% of the steamed rice is taken aside to make the koji, or the fungus primarily responsible for fermentation. After the koji has been created, the spores are mixed into the remaining rice and left for 48 hours. 

In addition to the koji, a type of yeast called shubo is also required for the sake making process. The shubo can be made in different ways, depending on the desired flavor of the sake. The shubo is mixed with the rice, water, and koji in three stages, and this new mixture is allowed to ferment over the course of 20 to 40 days. The mix is then pressed to remove the solids and is filtered through charcoal, much like whiskey, to remove some of the rougher flavors and achieve its proper color. Finally, most sake is pasteurized to stop fermentation and prolong its shelf life. Typically, this happens twice—once before it is left to mature, and once again before it is bottled.

Types of Sake

Though the process of making sake is generally the same for all varieties, master brewers can play with various factors to influence the flavor and quality of the sake. Here are some main categories of sake that you might find on a menu:

Junmai: Junmai sake is sake that is made from only rice, koji, and water, without additives like sugar or alcohol. Junmai typically has a rich, full body and an intense, slightly acidic flavor.

Honjozo: In contrast to junmai, honjozo is sake that is brewed with the addition of a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol. Many brewers use the addition of alcohol or sugar to change the flavor and aroma of the brew. Honjozo sakes are characterized by their light, smooth taste, and are said to be easy to drink. 

Ginjo: Ginjo sake is a premium variety of sake that is made from rice that has been polished to at least 60% of its original size and is brewed using special yeast and fermentation techniques that result in a light, fruity product with a complex flavor and strong fragrance. Ginjo sake is usually served chilled, which allows its delicate flavors to shine.

Daiginjo: Daiginjo is a super premium sake, considered to be a testament of the brewer’s skill. It uses precise brewing methods and rice that has been polished way down to at least 50% of its original size. 

Shiboritate: Shiboritate is the name for sake that is bottled directly after brewing, without the usual six months of maturing time. This variety can be polarizing—most drinkers either love it or hate it. In terms of flavor, shiboritate tends to be fruity and similar in many ways to white wine. 

Namazake: Namazake is sake that has not been pasteurized. Because of this, it must be refrigerated to stay fresh. Its flavor is usually fresh and fruity, with a sweet aroma. 

Jizake: If you are traveling to Japan, jizake is a word you want to be familiar with. Jizake means local sake. Sake is brewed all over Japan, and different regions have different specialties that pair particularly well with the region’s local cuisine. Jizake also tends to be very fresh and well-priced.

Nigori: Nigori is the name for sake that has not been filtered and is characterized by its cloudy, milky-looking appearance. The rice sediments that are usually filtered out are left as-is, giving the nigori its rich, sweet flavor.

Hot or cold

Generally, sake experts advise that high quality sake be drunk slightly chilled, at around the same temperature as white wine. Lower quality sake, on the other hand, tends to taste better warm. Historically, most sake was drunk warm, since traditional brewing methods used wooden tanks and casks that imparted a strong woody taste, and warming the sake was the best way to mask these less refined flavors. However, as brewing technology has improved in recent years, more and more sake is being served cold to showcase the subtle flavors and aromas. However, there is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to sake temperature—experts agree that personal preference is the best guide! If you prefer the taste of hot sake over cold, you should listen to your palate.

I hope this article has given you some insight into the wide world of sake. Next time you’re out for Japanese food, I hope you’ll feel empowered to order and enjoy this unique spirit for yourself. Kanpai!