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Someone pouring sake into a glass cup.
Someone pouring sake into a glass cup.

Sake: An In-Depth Beginner’s Guide!

Sophia WasylinkoSophia Wasylinko
Published Time
Posted on May 17, 2024

Sake is Japan’s most iconic and beloved alcoholic beverage, famous for its varieties, production methods, and cultural significance. But if you’re new to drinking, it can be overwhelming to order for the first time, especially if you’re in Japan.

That’s why we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to sake for our readers, including the history, popular types, essential terms, and etiquette around serving and consuming it. After reading this blog, you’ll be a connoisseur. Are you ready? Kanpai! (Let’s drink!)

What is sake?

In Japan,sake” is the general term for any Japanese alcoholic beverage. However, if you’re talking specifically about Japanese rice wine, you’d use Nihonshu (Japanese alcohol). 

Someone pouring rice liquor into a glass.
Sake is a form of rice liquor. Image via Shutterstock

Premium sake is served cold or at room temperature, while cheaper kinds are served warmed or in cocktails. Usually, the alcohol is poured from a tokkuri (bottle) into ochoko (cups). You may have also seen pictures of the alcohol poured to the brim of a glass inside a masu (wooden box).

What are its origins?

Sake has existed for about 2500 years since rice cultivation came to Japan from China. At first, only the nobility enjoyed it during special occasions. In the 10th century, Buddhist and Shinto monastics took over brewing, and the liquor became more accessible to the lower classes. 

Rice liquor in a wooden box.
Sake was initially reserved for the nobility. Image via Shutterstock

Despite rice shortages resulting in alcohol bans, the industry grew, and new methods were developed during the Edo period (1603-1867). When Japan opened to Westerners in the Meiji era, sake was a famous export, and it inspired the founding of the National Research Institute of Brewing in 1904. Years later, production continues to flourish and win over fans worldwide.

How is it made?

Did you know sake is similar to beer? That’s because of the fermentation process, which uses polished, washed, and steamed rice for an hour. Some are removed to cultivate the koji (mold) added to the starter mash, along with rice water, yeast, and more rice. 

A hand full of sake rice.
Sake comes form heavily polished rice. Image via Shutterstock

The fermentation lasts about a month. Afterward, the liquid is separated, filtered, pasteurized, and matured for six months. It’s then mixed with water, depending on the desired alcohol content, and goes through another cycle before being bottled. If you want to learn more about the process, we recommend signing up for sake-tasting or brewing classes.

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Key terms you should know about sake

Before getting into the different types of sake, here are key terms you should know.

Polishing 

Rice polishing removes the outer layer of the rice grain to expose the starch. The higher the classification, the greater the polishing ratio.

Junmai

Clear and smooth without alcohol or additives, it’s perfect for beginners and can be mixed to create new flavors.

Futsushu

It includes the most basic and least expensive subcategories outside the primary classification levels.

Someone pouring sake into a cup.
You can enjoy it at meals and a party! Image via Shutterstock

Types of sake you should try

There are eight basic classification levels and varieties that fall outside of them. We’ll mention a few below.

Honjozo

A level above junmai, honjozo’s polishing ratio is up to 70%. Some alcohol has been added for smoothness and flavor.

Ginjo and Daiginjo

Ginjo (premium) contains fruity, 60% polished rice. Daiginjo (super premium) contains delicate, 50% polished rice. Both have firm flavor profiles and are more expensive.

Someone pouring rice liquor into a cup.
There’s different kinds of sake that you can enjoy! Image via Shutterstock

Namazake

Unlike the other entries on this list, namazake is unpasteurized. It must be refrigerated and consumed as soon as possible.

Nigorizake

Like the name suggests, nigorizake is cloudy and roughly filtered through a cloth. It is creamy, with chunks of rice floating about.

Shiboritate

This fresh and fruity alcohol is immediately bottled after being pressed. 

How do I drink sake?

There are several rules when going out to drink sake. The most important one is never pouring for yourself. Make sure everyone else’s cups are filled first. Pour for older or senior people, holding the tokkuri with your right hand and touching the bottom with your left. When you’re served, hold your cup the same way. Sip once before setting it down.

Finally, have fun! Don’t worry or feel embarrassed about making mistakes. Sake is about celebrating and strengthening bonds with people you love; ultimately, it’s all that matters. Just don’t forget to drink in moderation!

Two women enjoying sake together.
Have you ever had sake before? Image via Shutterstock

Why should I try sake?

Sake breweries showcase their knowledge through unique packaging, family recipes, and activities like tours and tastings. Despite scientific developments and modern technology, the process remains essentially unchanged.

With levels ranging from dry to rich to sweet, sake is accessible to different types of drinkers. Whether you’re a beer aficionado or a wine connoisseur, you can enjoy it.

Finally, it’s perfect for any occasion, whether a wedding, graduation or a family reunion. You don’t need a specific reason to drink it. It is Japan’s national drink for a reason! What’s your favorite type of sake? What would you recommend to beginners? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

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