Foodies throughout the world have paired a glass of alcohol with their favorite meals for centuries, and Japan is no exception. In Japan, the alcohol of choice is sake (pronounced sah-key in English or sah-keh in Japanese). Perhaps you’ve heard of sake while watching an anime or playing a video game but never knew quite what it was. Here is a quick guide to let you know everything you never knew you needed to know about sake!
Sake is technically a generic term meaning “alcohol,” but the drink that comes to mind when most foreigners hear the word is a traditional rice-based wine called “nihonshu” or “Japanese alcohol.” The distinct flavor of a sake comes from a fermentation process overseen by a toji (master brewer). The toji heads the fermentation process, which first sees rice washed and steamed. After the rice has cooled, about one fifth of the rice is laid on a wooden table. This rice begins the fermentation process as starches are broken down by koji mould spores and is later used to make sake.
Grades of Sake
The quality grade of a sake is determined by its rice-polishing ratio. Rice grains consist of two layers: the bran on the outside and the starch on the inside. The rice-polishing ratio describes how much of the starchy core is left after being milled (removing the outer grain). Good sake often has a 50 to 70% polish ratio, but sake using fresh, local ingredients with lower polish rations are also enjoyed by Japanese people.
Types of Sake
There are many, many varieties of sake, but the basic way sake is characterized is by how it’s brewed and what is added to it along the way.
Junmai sake, known as pure rice sake, has a rice-polishing ratio between 55% and 70%. This sake really allows you to taste the rich flavors of rice because it only uses the most basic of ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji. It’s served great at room temperature and is paired well with strong flavor foods. The term “junmai” can also be applied to different sake types if there are no other additives besides the four listed above.
On the other end of the spectrum is honjozo sake, with a minimum rice-polishing ratio of 70%. This light, mildly fragrant premium sake is different from Junmai because of the distilled brewers alcohol added to extract the aroma and smooth out the flavor of the drink. It is light, easy to drink, and served well both warm and chilled.
Ginjo sake, with a rice-polishing ratio of at least 60%, is brewed at lower temperatures to bring out the aromatic components of the sake. It’s fruity, complex, and fragrant and is often served chilled.
Daiginjo sake, with a 50% or less rice-polishing ratio, requires a delicate and precise hand to make. The toji needs to know exactly what they are doing if they want to craft this sake, which uses traditional methods to extract the flavor and aroma of the rice. This super premium sake is usually chilled to bring out its complex flavors.
With all of its wonderful properties, sake is an incredibly versatile beverage. As mentioned above, it can be enjoyed chilled, room temperature, or even warm. Ask the restaurant staff for recommendations on which temperature your sake should be served at if you’re feeling unsure. They’ll know what’s popular with sake connoisseurs. Because of its slight umami flavor and low acidity levels, sake pairs well with a variety of dishes such as sushi, and even Western foods.
When you’re planning your trip to Japan, make an effort to add Japanese sake to your list. Try a sake made with fresh, local ingredients to feel connected to the quaint villages of Japan. Or treat yourself to a high-end sake with a high rice-polishing ratio and taste the magic for yourself. Whichever way you choose, you’ll be glad you added a piece of Japan’s rich culture to your meal!