Sake Cheat Sheet: Get Your Drink on with This Handy Guide to Nihonshu

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On July 6, 2018
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Sake is Japan’s national beverage and plays an important role in Japanese culture. It’s often used in Shinto rituals, sipped on special occasions such as New Year’s Day and these days it’s also experiencing a growth in popularity overseas. Here’s a quick primer to help you navigate your way around this quintessentially Japanese libation.

The basics

In Japanese, the word sake means “alcohol,” but here we’re focusing specifically on nihonshu (Japanese rice wine), which is actually closer to beer in terms of its brewing process.

Sake’s main ingredients are rice and water. The higher quality the rice and the purer the water, the better the sake is meant to taste. A special brewer’s rice called sakamai, which has larger grains than other types, is most commonly used — particularly when making premium sake.

First, the rice is milled to remove the outer husk, as the bran can spoil the flavor of the finished product. The polished rice is then soaked and steamed before being combined with koji (a mold used in the production of fermented foods like miso) and yeast to ferment. After fermentation, the resulting mixture is pressed and filtered to remove any undissolved ingredients before being left to mature.

Sake varieties

It sounds simple so far, but as anyone who has bought sake in Japan will know — it gets more complicated! There are a number of different classifications of the beverage, the most basic distinction being between futsuushu (ordinary sake) and tokutei meishoshu (specially designated sake).

Within the “specially designated” classification, there are eight different sub-categories that were specified by the Japanese government in the Liquor Tax Act. These relate to factors such as the addition of brewer’s alcohol and the degree to which the rice it was made with was polished. All sake that falls within these categories can be considered premium sake and of higher quality than the more common futsuu, or ordinary, variety.

Addition of alcohol

Brewers sometimes add distilled alcohol to sake during the brewing process in order to alter the flavor or to reduce production costs. Purer sake, with little or no additional alcohol, is considered to be of higher quality and premium sake can be classified into two main categories that indicate this:

  • 純米酒, or junmaishu, is sake made without added alcohol or sugar
  • 本醸造酒, or honjouzoushu, is sake that contains less than 10 percent added alcohol

Ratio of rice polishing

As the outer layers of the rice grains contain impurities that affect the flavor of the sake, the more polished the rice is the better drink should taste. The rice polishing ratio tells you how much of the husk was removed before being used to make the sake. The lower this number is, the more rice was polished away and the higher quality the sake.

  • 大吟醸, or daiginjou, has a rice polishing ratio of 50 percent or less
  • 吟醸, or ginjou, has a rice polishing ratio of 60 percent or less

These four different classifications can be combined to make up the eight specially designated categories, with junmai daiginjou regarded as the highest grade of sake available.

Some like it hot

Photo by Tablier

Sake can be enjoyed at a range of temperatures, from chilled to room temperature to hot, depending on the drink, the season and individual preferences. Generally speaking, higher quality sake such as daiginjou and ginjou tends to be served at cooler temperatures, while heating up cheaper sake is thought to hide the taste of the impurities.

Hot sake is commonly referred to atsukan, and is heated by placing the ceramic sake container (called tokkuri) into a pot of hot water to gradually warm it up to around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). If you’re after chilled sake, ask for reishu, which is normally served between 5 C and 10 C (41 F to 50 F). You can also ask for sake to be served at room temperature, or jouon. Why not mix it up and see which you prefer?

Whatever temperature you opt for, your drink will usually be served in a small glass or cup. The traditional unit for serving sake is called a gou, which is about 180 milliliters. Larger bottles are also available — ni (two) gou is a serving vessel twice the size — just remember to fill up your drinking partners’ cups before your own!

Tours and tastings

Toshimaya sake and wooden masu cup.Photo by DigitalHub

Toshimaya sake and wooden masu cup.

If this article has given you a thirst for more knowledge about sake (or just a thirst for the drink itself!), try visiting one of the many breweries around Japan that offers tours and/or tastings. These are a great way to learn more about sake brewing first-hand. It’s also the perfect chance to find out which types you prefer, as you normally get to try a selection of the different varieties discussed above. Here are some of GaijinPot’s top recommendations:

  • Ide Sake Brewery, Kawaguchiko
    This brewery uses pure spring water from Mt. Fuji to create top-quality sake. Tours are held twice a day or you can drop in any time for a tasting.
  • Harushika Sake Brewery, Nara
    Harushika is tucked away in Naramachi, Nara City’s traditional merchant district. It runs drop-in sake tasting year-round and in February it’s also possible to tour the factory.
  • Hokusetsu Sake Brewery, Niigata
    This brewery is best known for “mellowing” its sake in a special music room, which is supposed to ensure quicker maturation and a more refreshing taste. Tours are available from May to October, but the brewery is open for sake tasting all year round.
  • Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, Kyoto
    Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward is famous for sake production and at the Gekkeikan museum you can find out more about the history and techniques of how the tipple is made. Naturally, there’s also a tasting area!
  • Toshimaya, Tokyo
    Founded in 1596, Toshimaya is the oldest sake shop in Tokyo and runs tours and tastings for visitors who want to discover more about its long, 420-year history and prestigious products.
  • Shushinkan brewery, Kobe
    Kobe’s Nada district is another area well known for its sake, thanks to the availability of high quality water and rice plus its proximity to Kobe port. Shushinkan is one of many breweries in the area offering tours and tastings.

This is just a tiny selection of the breweries that open their doors to the public, so check online to see what’s available in your local area. Kanpai!

What’s your favorite type of sake? Are there any other brewery tours or tastings you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments!

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Kansai-based British writer with a love of cats, Japan and all things "kawaii."

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