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There is much mystery and myth about sake.  Most people have only experienced hot sake as an accompaniment to sushi, but you don't have to go to Japan to become a bona fide sake connoisseur!

Sake is a rice-based alcoholic beverage of Japanese origin.  It is sometimes spelled saké to show the pronunciation more clearly.

Sake is also referred to in English as a form of rice wine.  However, unlike true wine, in which alcohol is produced by fermenting the sugar naturally present in fruit, sake is made through a brewing process more like that of beer, thus it's more like a rice brew than a rice wine.  To make beer or sake, the sugar needed to produce alcohol must first be converted from starch.  However, the brewing process for sake differs from beer brewing as well, notably in that for beer, the conversion of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol occurs in two discrete steps, but with sake they occur simultaneously.  Additionally, alcohol content also differs between sake, wine, and beer.  Wine generally contains 9–16% alcoholand most beer is 3–9%, whereas undiluted sake is 18–20% alcohol, although this is often lowered to around 15% by diluting the sake with water prior to bottling.



The rice used for brewing sake is called shuzo kotekimai (sake rice).  The grain is larger, stronger, and contains less protein and lipid than the ordinary rice eaten by Japanese.  The rice has a starch component called shinpaku in the center of the grains.  Since sake made from rice containing purely starch has a superior taste, the rice is polished to remove the bran.  If a grain is small or weak, it will break in the process of polishing.  This rice is used only for making sake, because it is unpalatable for eating.  There are at least 80 types of sake rice in Japan.  Among these, Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamanishiki and Omachi rice are very popular.


Water is one of the important ingredients for making sake.  Rigid restrictions are observed for the concentrations of certain chemical substances which can affect the taste and quality of sake.  The water used is almost always groundwater or well water.  Urban breweries usually import water from other areas, because of the difficulty of getting water of sufficient quality locally.

Types of Sake

There are two basic types of sake:  Futsū-shu (Ordinary sake) and Tokutei meishō-shu (special-designation sake).  Futsū-shu is the equivalent of table wine and accounts for the majority of sake produced.  Tokutei meishō-shu refers to premium sakes distinguished by the degree to which the rice has been polished and the added percentage of brewer's alcohol or the absence of such additives.  There are eight varieties of special-designation sake.

Taste and Flavor

The label on a bottle of sake gives a rough indication of its taste.  Terms seen on the labels include:  Nihonshu-do, San-do and Aminosan-do.

Nihonshu-do:  Indicates how many carbohydrates and acid the sake contains.  When comparing sake with water, sake that is heavier than water is called "-", and sake that is lighter than water is called "+".  For example, "+10" is very dry, and "-10" is very sweet.

San-do:  Indicates the density of acid, which is determined by titration.  Sake of high san-do is dry, and low san-do is sweet.

Aminosan-do:  Indicates a taste of umami.  As the proportion of amino-acids rises, the sake has more and more umami.

Sake can have many flavor notes, such as apples, bananas, melons, flowers, herbs, spices, rice, chestnuts, chocolates, dry grapes, sherry, caramel sauce, etc.  The flavor of apples comes from ethyl caproate, and bananas from isoamyl acetate.  These two constituents are contained in many types of sake which is represented by Ginjyoshu

Serving 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.  This masking of flavor is the reason that low-quality and old sake is often served hot.

Sake is usually drunk from small cups called choko, and poured into the choko from ceramic flasks called tokkuri.  Saucer-like cups called sakazuki are also used, most commonly at weddings and other ceremonial occasions.  Recently, footed glasses made specifically for premium sake have also come into use.

Another traditional cup is the masu, a box usually made of hinoki or sugi, which was originally used for measuring rice.  In some Japanese restaurants, as a show of generosity, the server may put a glass inside the masu or put the masu on a saucer and pour until sake overflows and fills both containers.

Aside from being served straight, sake can be used as a mixer for cocktails, such as tamagozake, saketinis, nogasake, or the sake bomb.

Beau Timken of True Sake is proud to be called a "sake samurai".  Learn from Beau.

Thre are six commonly accepted sake categories:

Junmai:  Sake that is made up of water, koji mold, yeast and rice that has been milled 30% with 70% of each grain remaining.

Honjozo:  Sake that is made up of rice, water, koji mold, yeast and a portion of added distilled alcohol, and the rice is milled 30% with 70% of each grain remaining.

Junmai Ginjo:  Sake that is made up of water, koji mold, yeast and rice milled 40% with 60% of each grain remaining.

Ginjo:  Sake that is made up of rice, water, koji mold, yeast and a portion of added distilled alcohol, and the rice is milled 40% with 60% of each grain remaining.

Junmai Dai Ginjo:  Sake that is made up of water, koji mold, yeast and rice milled 50% with 50% of each grain of rice remaining.

Dai Ginjo:  Sake that is made up of rice, water, koji mold, yeast and a portion of distilled alcohol, and the rice is milled 50% with 50% of each grain remaining.

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