What Do You Know About SAKE?

November 19, 2009   

I feel sometimes confusing to find out right away which terms the customer has just meant to say to me – Sake or Sake? – The "drink" or the "salmon"???

In phonetically, many Japanese noun meanings are differed by its accent positions or the tone of pronunciations. Obviously, saying [SA-ki] is a wrong example because the sequence of “k-e” consonant in Japanese is always pronounced as [k-EH] not [k-I]. Even for a word “Sake” can be differed by [SA-keh] (salmon fish) or [sa-KEH] (the alcoholic beverage). However, in Japanese characters both are distinguished by different one Chinese character for each meaning.

What is Sake?
Commonly, it is understood that “Sake” is rice wine. However, in specifically it is not entirely true. The grape wines are made by naturally fermenting the sugar in grape juice but in contrast, the sake (rice wine) is made by brewing process by adding koji mold(Aspergillus Oryza), which is similar to creating beer. Also, grape wines generally contain 9-16% of alcohol, and most beer is 3-8%, whereas undiluted sake is 18-20% alcohol. The techniques of brewing is passed down generations throughout the history of Japan and each surviving brewery has its secret skills and a set of “in-house” formulas, called “hidden (secret transmissions)” to create their unique brands. Surprisingly, the first record of sake goes back to around the Year 700 in Japanese history. In those days the first Japanese imperial court was founded by the most powerful worrier clan, supposedly descended from the heaven that was governed by a group of gods & goddesses, lead by the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Among of those mythical stories of the beginning of Japan, Sake is also mentioned several times in the Kojiki, (The Records of the Japanese Ancients)-Japan's first written history, compiled in year 712. In the records, people used sake for spiritual ceremonies because people got “a fever” from drinking it.

Grades of Sake
There are three types of grades:

  • Honjōzō: in which a slight amount of brewer's alcohol is added to the sake before pressing, in order to extract extra flavors and aromas from the mash. This term was created in the late 1960s to distinguish it, premium sake, from cheaply made liquors to which large amounts of distilled alcohol were added simply to increase volume. Sake with this designation must be made with no more than 116 liters of pure alcohol added for every 1,000 kilograms of rice.
  • Junmai: "pure rice sake," made from only rice, water and kōji, with no brewer's alcohol or other additives. Before 2004, the Japanese government mandated that junmai must be made from rice-grains polished down to 70% or less of its original weight, but that restriction has been removed.
  • Ginjō: made from rice-grains polished down to 60% or less of its original weight. Sake made from rice polished to 50% or lower is called dai-ginjō (The Great Ginjō). In generally, brewing with the more polished rice, the better mellow & sensitive sake characters are created. However, if you simply prefer the dry side, then, Honjōzō could be a better grade to try.

How Sake is Made


Serving of Sake
Depending on your preferences, sake can be served in a wide variety of cups. In generally, there three types of serving containers are traditionally are used:

  • Sakazuki (a flat, saucer-like cup made of ceramic, glass, metal, or lacquer coated wood)

  • Ochoko (a small, cylindrical cup made of ceramic or glass)                        

  • Masu (a wooden, box-like cup – pine or Japanese oak, in which hot sake is poured, the scent of wood is evapolated by heat and mixed with the aroma of sake) - very authentic piece for drinking sake. 

In Japan sake is served chilled, at room temperature, or heated, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake, and the season. Typically, hot sake is a winter drink, and high-grade sake is not drunk hot, because the flavors and aromas will be lost. Therefore, low-grade sake is often served hot to mask the flavor.

How to Preserve Sake

In general, it is best to keep sake refrigerated in a cool or dark room, as prolonged exposure to heat or direct light will lead to spoilage. After opening the bottle, if stored at room temperature, it is best consumed within a few months. Especially for premium sake, it begins to oxidize after opening, which affects the taste. If kept in the refrigerator, sake can keep very well and still taste just fine after weeks. How long sake will remain drinkable depends on the actual product itself, and it would be best if it is re-sealed with a wine vacuum top.