If you've ever been curious about sake but not sure where to start exploring the famous Japanese alcohol, James Davies from Japan National Tourism Organisation explains the ins and outs of this delicious rice wine.The Resident: Modern sake is often stored in steel containers but some breweries still use wooden barrels.Modern sake is often stored in steel containers but some breweries still use wooden barrels. (Image: Todd Fong)


Getting to Know Japanese Sake

While Japanese foods such as sushi and ramen are known throughout the world, the nation's favourite drink, sake, is still much of a mystery outside of Japan.

Sake has been enjoyed in Japan for centuries - the country’s longest running sake brewery is over 800 years old.

Sake breweries are found throughout Japan, and one of the best things about travelling around the country is getting to taste two, three or more of each region’s local brews.

What Exactly is Sake?

Sake is a clear, smooth, and incredibly drinkable rice wine.

With an alcohol content usually between 13 per cent and 17 per cent proof, sake is served just about everywhere in Japan, from the tiniest backstreet bars to the most upmarket Michelin starred restaurants. If you’ve yet to taste sake, you’re in for a treat.

How is Sake Made?

Though it may look like a spirit, sake is brewed rather than distilled.

The process of brewing sake begins by polishing the rice. This is done to strip away unwanted minerals, fats and proteins found around the outside of each grain of rice.

The more the rice is polished at this first stage the more refined the flavour of the final sake will be.

Next, the polished rice is washed, steamed and fermented with yeast before being pasteurised.

The finished sake is then aged for at least six months, though some brewers age their sake for years and even decades.

The Resident: Great sake starts with great rice, which is steamed and mixed with yeast to start the fermentation process.Great sake starts with great rice, which is steamed and mixed with yeast to start the fermentation process. (Image: Todd Fong)

What Does Sake Taste Like?

If you’ve never tried sake then the taste might surprise you.

The flavour of sake varies depending on the individual recipes used by each brewery, but much like wine, sake is broadly graded on a scale from sweet to dry.

Naturally, a higher amount of sugar added during brewing produces a sweeter sake.

Regardless of whether a sake is dry or sweet, it is usually incredibly easy to drink.

The flavour is subtle and succinct and leaves very little aftertaste. Sweet sakes are typically mellow in taste while dry sake is more savoury and a little sharp.

Some brewers age their sake for longer periods which produces a smoother and richer finish as well as a darker appearance.

Some sakes are less heavily filtered during the brewing process, creating a cloudy and quite creamy drink which goes well with spicier foods.

Another type of sake, called namazake, is unpasteurized and has an incredibly fresh flavour along with a fruity aroma.

The Resident: Though it may look like a spirit, sake is brewed rather than distilledThough it may look like a spirit, sake is brewed rather than distilled (Image: Todd Fong)

How to Drink Sake

In Japan there are two common ways of drinking sake. The first is on a raucous night out in a bar after a long day in the office. The second (and more dignified) way is as a carefully selected accompaniment to seasonal Japanese dishes.

In bars and restaurants, sake is typically served slightly chilled in small cups or glasses called sakazuki.

On special occasions, sake is often served in a glass placed inside a small square wooden box called a masu.

On such occasions sake is poured into the glass and allowed to overflow into the masu to signify prosperity and good fortune.

Sake can also be gently heated and served warm, which slightly alters both its taste and aroma.

Though served in small glasses or cups, it’s important to remember that sake is not a shot that should be downed in one gulp.

Sake is to be sipped and enjoyed, whether you’re supping it with an extravagant meal or during a night on the tiles.



The Perfect Sake Food Pairings

As you might expect, sake pairs very well with a wide range of Japanese dishes.

This is thanks largely to its unobtrusive taste, but also because sake helps to bring out the flavour of key ingredients in Japanese cuisine.

Sake is excellent when served with Japanese staples such as fresh fish and seafood as well as grilled vegetables.

Sake can also be paired with plenty of non-Japanese foods, particularly salads, as well as strong meats and cheese.

In general, you should try to match the style of sake to the food you’re serving, so a rich sake goes better with rich food.

Sake can also be an excellent palate cleanser in between courses.

The Resident: The sugi-dama hanging outside a sake brewery signals when their product is ready for sale.The sugi-dama hanging outside a sake brewery signals when their product is ready for sale. (Image: Todd Fong)

How to Pick a Good Sake

The good news is that it is very difficult to find a bad sake.

The majority of sake brewed in Japan is technically categorised as futsu-shu, or non-premium sake, comparable to a table wine.

If you’re looking for a particularly good tipple then look for either a ginjo sake or a junmai sake.

Both are made from higher quality ingredients including rice grown specifically for use in sake.

Both ginjo and junmai sake are famous for their delicately refined taste and pleasing aromas.

As a rule of thumb, the best ginkgo and junmai sake are brewed in regions of Japan that are famous for growing rice.

When buying a bottle of sake, look for the percentage marked on the label. This does not refer to the amount of alcohol in the sake, but rather the amount that the rice was polished during brewing.

The lower the number, the more the rice has been polished and the higher the quality of the sake will be. A sake with a percentage of 60 per cent or lower is guaranteed to be a seriously good drink.

If you’re travelling around Japan, why not try some of the incredible sake waiting to be found in each corner of the country?

From Tokyo you can take a trip to Ibaraki prefecture, where you can tour the oldest sake brewery in Japan, Sudo Honke, founded in 1141.

In the beautiful seaside town of Ine in Kyoto prefecture you can try a unique red sake, made using red rice at the Mukai Sake Brewery, the first sake brewery in Japan to have a female head brewer.

Niigata, one of the largest rice-producing regions in Japan, also produces excellent sake - some of the best around. Niigata also has more sake breweries than any other prefecture in Japan.

Fukushima and Hiroshima, two prefectures both famous for the quality of their rice and an abundance of fresh water, also produce superb sakes.

On your next trip to Japan, be sure to explore the many different varieties of sake waiting to be discovered in each region of the country. Kampai! 

For more information about sake in Japan visit japan.travel