Nihonshu (日本酒, often rendered in English as simply 'sake', also used in this article) is an alcoholic beverage native to Japan. It is frequently called "rice wine" in English, although the significant differences between wine and sake make the naming incorrect.
It is obtained by fermenting rice with a specific type of mold, called kōji.
Sake is a type of alcoholic beverage made from rice. It contains an average of 15-17% ABV, and it is enjoyed in ways similar to those of wine in many Western countries. Also, as a fermented alcoholic beverage obtained through few natural ingredients and a natural brewing process, it has as many variations and characteristics as wine.
However, its similarities with wine end here: the two have very different making processes, looks, tastes, organoleptic properties and classification criteria. This article will include basic information to understand the main characteristics of sake.
Sake is obtained from rice grains which had their bran removed. As a rule of thumb, high-end brands are made using grains polished more deeply, resulting in purer sake with more refined characteristics.
Although virtually any species of rice may be used to make sake, only a few are favored for the purpose. This list includes very common types, along with the prefectures where they are widely cultivated.
Yamada Nishiki (山田錦) - Hyogo, Okayama, Fukuoka
Omachi (雄町) - Okayama
Miyama Nishiki (美山錦) - Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi, Fukushima, Nagano
Gohyakumangoku (五百万石) - Niigata, Fukushima, Toyama, Ishikawa
Ōseto (オオセト) - Kagawa
Hatta Nishiki (八反錦) - Hiroshima
Tamazakae (玉栄) - Tottori and Shiga
Kame No O (亀の尾) - Niigata, Yamagata
Dewa San San (出羽燦々) - Niigata, Yamagata
Ingredients and grades
In general, each label falls into a certain category, or 'grade', depending on the type of rice used, whether alcohol is or is not added, and the extent to which grains are polished. This list includes all grades, also showing the ingredients and the polishing rate (amount of grain removed. The higher the figure, the more refined the resulting sake will be.)
- The Junmai grade (純米). Rice, water, kōji and yeast. Includes Junmai, Tokubetsu Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Dai Ginjo. Polishing: 50% and above (the polishing rate for Junmai is not set).
- The Honjōzō grade (本醸造). Rice, water, kōji and alcohol. Divided in Honjōzō and Tokubetsu Honjōzō. Polishing: 60-70%.
- The Ginjō grade (吟醸). Rice, water, kōji and alcohol. Divided in Ginjō and Dai Ginjō. Polishing: 50-60%.
Generally, nihonshu is made following the process shown below. However, in some cases, some steps are skipped to obtain a beverage with strongly different properties.
1) Preparation of rice: after bran is removed, the rice is washed, soaked and steamed.
2) Fermentation. Kōji mold and other ingredients are added to start fermentation.
3) Pressing. The fermented ingredients are pressed to extract sake in its first form.
4) First pasteurization. The extract is matured and blended after this stage.
6) Second pasteurization
Relevant differences are obtained when the bottling occurs at any stage after pressing, such as with Genshu and Nama (see Types of brew).
Types of brew
Nihonshu is further divided in types of brew. The type assigned depends on the stage at which the sake is bottled and, in some cases, the technique used to brew it.
This list includes the most common types.
Nigori: Filtered through cloth before fermentation. Sometimes it is naturally sparkling.
Genshu: First make, undiluted.
Nama: Non-pasteurized. It usually has a very fresh flavor.
Nama Chozō and Nama Zume: pasteurized only once.
Shinshu: The name given to the first make of the year.
Hiyaoroshi: Brewed in March, aged underground over summer, and released in fall.
Kimoto: Slower brewing process. Strong palate. Rice is pulverized.
Yamahai: Brewed the same way as Kimoto, but rice is not pulverized.
Koshu: A type of sake that is usually aged 3+ years.
Differences with wine
Unlike wine, the alcohol in nihonshu results from the fermentation of starch (not sugar), making it more similar to beer.
In some cases, such as with the Honjōzō and Ginjō grades, alcohol is added to the brew in the making.
The level of alcohol obtained naturally is higher than 20% ABV. For this reason, water is added to the first make so to lower its ABV to 15-17% and make it more easily enjoyed. In this, sake is more similar to stronger spirits, such as whiskey.
How Japanese people enjoy sake
Nihonshu can be drunk in any way the drinker is willing to: some will have it with food, some as a relaxing drink while watching movies. Sake lovers will consider it a noble beverage to sip in silence, while others will only have it when enjoying an evening out with friends. It is usually absent at clubs, stable at ryokans and “snacks” (スナック, small bars run by a lady or a transgender man), abundant at izakayas, and somewhat present in entertainment districts.
How to heat up sake
Sake can be heated up the traditional way, by immersing it in hot water, or with a microwave.
Microwave heating: Pour the sake into a tokuri flask. Cover the top of the flask with plastic film. Heat at 600W for 30–50 seconds.
Hot water: Pour the sake into a tokuri, a chirori, or a shutampo. Pour water into a pot wide enough for the flask to fit in without effort. Bring to a boil, then stop the fire and immerse the flask into the hot water. Depending on the material used for the flask and the room temperature, it will heat up in 2 to 5 minutes. Remove the flask from the hot water when it reaches the temperature you like.
Vessels and flasks
There is a surprisingly large number of items used to enjoy nihonshu, either vessels (cups and glasses) or flasks. This list includes the most common types.
Tokuri (徳利 or in hiragana, とくり. Also pronounced tokkuri). The classic vessel used to heat up sake at home. It is not meant to be filled to the top, although many izakayas will do just that to make sure the guest feels welcomed.
Chirori (チロリ, also in hiragana, ちろり) and shutampo (酒たんぽ). Vessels made in metal with a handle, often used at food shops in stead of a tokuri. The handle and wide top allow quicker operations and visual hints on the temperature of the sake, while the metal makes the content warm up faster than the clay from which a tokuri is made.
Katakuchi (片口). Wide-top flask with a protruding nozzle (spout).
Chōshi (銚子, often o-chōshi). Similar to a tea pot, sometimes with two spouts. Used in special occasions, such as a wedding ceremony.
Choko (猪口, often o-choko). The most popular cup, perfect for hot sake, which will be poured from a tokuri. It may or may not have a foot. Made in any suitable materials including clay, ceramics, porcelain, glass, metals. Recommended with types of nihonshu that are to be enjoyed at a slow pace. The name covers a wide range of small sake cups that do not fit in any other category.
Guinomi (ぐい呑). A bit larger than a choko, it has the same shape, use and characteristics.
Sakazuki (盃). The saucer-shaped vessel. Often used on special occasions, but also main choice at several food shops. A good match for smooth hot sake that is enjoyed at a faster pace.
Masu (升). The wooden open-top box. Often accompanied by a glass, which will be placed at the center of the masu. In this case, sake will be poured in the glass until it overflows into the masu. This is a custom meant to symbolize wishes for abundance in the future of the drinker, who is supposed to drink directly from the masu after the content of the glass have been drunk. Some will sprinkle salt on top, which also comes from old customs.
Glass (in Japanese-English gurasu), a small glass.
The capacity of a flask and some vessels is directly related to the traditional metric unit for liquids and spaces, called gō (合), which corresponds to 180 ml plus some (about 6.3 oz). A single serving is usually 180 ml, and even the smallest tokuri flask will contain that much sake. It is also the amount contained in a masu.
It is not unusual to order and own larger flasks, which contain 360 ml (2 gō), 540 ml (3 gō) and so on.
Although alcoholic beverages obtained from rice are common in Asia, it is now generally accepted that nihonshu is native to Japan. The main differences are in the specific type of rice used and the complex brewing process, which result in a very different beverage when compared to other rice spirits.
Sake is largely documented in Japanese literature and Chinese travel reports dating back to the first centuries AD, and sake drinking sessions are frequently depicted in traditional art, along with the improvised dances that often accompany such sessions.
In Japan, as in most countries, the word “sake” is only used to indicate a non-distilled alcoholic beverage made in Japan, obtained from the fermentation of rice with kōji mold. Some differences in the brewing process, such as the addition of alcohol in some cases, do not affect the authenticity of a product.
Did you know?
- Sometimes you will drink sake that is 15% ABV, but notice it is more intoxicating than other types of nihonshu bottled at 18% ABV. This may be caused by a number of factors, such as the grain polishing methods, the amount of bran removed, the filtering process and the addition of alcohol or lack thereof. This is the reason why labels in the “Tokubetsu” grade are usually types of sake you may enjoy with lighter side effects.
- If you are concerned about hangovers and feeling tired easily when drinking sake, there are a few tricks that expert nihonshu drinkers follow: 1) Only drink sake in the Junmai grade 2) Start from hot or lukewarm sake, as it is more easily and gradually assimilated by your body while you drink it, thanks to its temperature; cold sake will be assimilated all at once as soon as it reaches body temperature 3) Drink one portion at a time, that is, one 180 ml flask (ichigō, 一合), keeping the pace at one flask every 30 minutes 4) Drink the same amount of water: if you have 2 flasks of sake, you should also drink 2 generous glasses of water.
- The label of a sake does not simply indicate how good a product is and why you should purchase it: in most cases, it features some key information that will help the buyer decide if that is the type of sake they are looking for. You will frequently find a graph showing where the sake is positioned in terms of nose (strong or fresh) and mouthfeel (thick or smooth).
Labels always mention the overall sweetness of the sake, going from sweet (甘口, amakuchi) to dry (辛口, karakuchi), with the intermediate grades of ‘fairly sweet’ (やや甘口, yaya amakuchi) and the specular ‘fairly dry’ (やや辛口, yaya karakuchi).
Finally, just like wine, sake labels will also show the best temperature to enjoy the spirit. When indicating the recommended temperature, many Japanese breweries will adopt the Japanese-style 'circle, cross and line' graphic style: the circle (○) means “good”, the cross (X) means “bad”, and the em dash (–) means “no comment”. The em dash is used in stead of a cross for obvious reasons, and the double circle (◎) is an additional symbol used to mean “highly recommended”.
However, when at home, it is pretty common to have sake at different temperatures according to one’s mood. As the Japanese saying goes, “ten people, ten colors” (somewhat similar to the English "to each their own".)
- Most people in Japan will enjoy their nihonshu at one of the three main temperatures (cold, room temperature or hot). However, if you are having a drinking session with a true nihonshu lover, you might come across a few more alternatives. Here is a not very reasonable, but comprehensive list.
Snow-cold* (雪冷え, yukibie), ab. 5ºC (41ºF)
Very cool* (花冷え, hanabie), ab. 10ºC (50ºF)
Cool* (suzubie, 涼冷え), ab. 15ºC (59ºF)
*In most cases, you just call for ""cold sake"" (reishu, 冷酒) and entrust the fridge with the temperature.
Room temperature (jōon, 常温)
Sun-heated (hinatakan, 日向燗), ab. 30ºC (86ºF)
Skin temperature (hitohadakan, 人肌燗), ab. 35ºC (95ºF)
Lukewarm (nurukan, ぬる燗), ab. 40ºC (104ºF)
Warm (jōkan, 上燗), ab. 45ºC (113ºF)
Hot (atsukan, 熱燗), ab. 50ºC (122ºF)
Very hot (tobikirikan, 飛び切り燗), ab. 55–60ºC (131–140ºF)