Japan Week
Menu
Search

Ever Wondered What Sake Actually Is? Your Comprehensive Guide

Sake: not a rice wine, but a beer-like ferment. Read up on its history as one of the world’s first alcoholic drinks, plus learn how to enjoy the delicacy at home today

What is Sake?: Woman pouring bottle of sake for Japan Week

Think of sake, and a katakana symbol-adorned bottle of Japanese rice wine likely springs to mind. You might have tried a mug at your local sushi joint, slightly warmed and paired with sticky rice, sliced ginger and fresh tuna, or hand-in-hand with a bowl of steaming, salty edamame.

Although common, the idea of sake as a type of wine is a misconception. In fact, sake is an age-old Japanese rice delicacy that has a brewing process more like beer. Plus, despite many a warm mug hitting restaurant tables, it’s best served chilled, especially if it’s a more premium ferment of sake.

Why? Well, Tom Wilson – head brewer at the UK’s first sake brewery (Peckham-based Kanpai) explains. "Lower-end sakes have stereotypically been served heated to mask a lack of delicate depth, as the heating process helps to intensify underlying flavours".

Now we've cleared that age-old serving myth up, read on for everything you need to know about how to make sake, what it tastes like and exactly how to drink it when out and about or from the comfort of your own home.

How is sake made?

Sake is made by fermenting four ingredients – rice (polished to varying degrees), water, yeast and koji (a mould that aids the fermentation process that comes from cooked fermented rice). Fermentation is a lengthy and laborious process that takes up to a month and a half, with the resulting sake falling into one of many different styles depending on a variety of different factors, from the degree to which the rice has been polished to whether it has been aged, filtered or pasteurised.

Junmai-shu is made from rice only with no added alcohol; honjozo-shu has distilled alcohol added; ginjo-shu is made from highly polished rice; and daiginjo-shu, where the rice is even more highly polished.

It’s also high in alcohol, meaning you don’t need to drink as much to feel the effects. All sit at around 15 to 17%, putting a glass of sake a fair bit stronger than your average beer at 4% or glass of wine at 12%.

View on Instagram

What does sake taste like?

Despite this higher ABV, sake is still dangerously easy to drink. It hits your palate with a light, umami flavour. Most are semi-dry, smooth and have a quick, clean finish.

Rich in history and the national drink of Japan, sake has been a traditional beverage in East Asia for thousands of years now. It still stands as one of the oldest known alcoholic drinks in the world, with its first records surfacing around 4800 BC in China. In ancient Japan, sake was brewed predominantly in temples and shrines. Come the 1300s, sake was the most ceremonious beverage in the country, enjoyed at many a religious ceremony, celebration and traditional court festival.

How to drink sake

Now you know what you’re drinking, how do you drink it? As previously mentioned, it’s best served chilled and with certain food groups. Aside from sushi, sake complements pretty much all fish, seafood and white meat thanks to its clean and neutral taste. Unlike wine, which can make fishier flavours seem overpowering as a result of its iron levels, sake’s umami qualities make for the perfect pairing with seafood.

Still not sure? Picture the scene: you’re finally relaxing into your chair come date night, spooning fish that falls off the bone into your mouth. It’s delicate, salty and sweet, and you can taste that it was caught just hours earlier. Pair it with a mug of sake, the satisfying umami taste enhancing the delicious fresh catch you’re enjoying.

Sound good? Pour yourself a glass and kanpai – or, in other words, cheers.

Loading