- Introduce you to the world of Sake – essential for travel in Japan
- Sake’s categories and grades (Regulated by law)
- Process of making sake
- How you enjoy sake more in elegance
- Unique Japanese cuisine that goes with sake
- Buying Sake in Japan
Introduce you to the world of Sake – essential for travel in Japan
Sake in Japanese refers to any alcoholic drink including beer or wine, but it especially it refers to sake as in Nihonshu 日本酒 (Japanese sake).
Japanese sake is an important part of Japanese people’s life. When you travel to Japan, you will encounter a lot of sake, and if you have a bit of knowledge about it, the dining experience will be even more fun.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to the entrance of the world of sake, the basic knowledge and how you can enjoy them during your travel.
What is Japanese Sake
Japanese sake is a liquor made of mainly rice and water fermented to be an alcohol drink. The alcohol percentage is usually around 15%-22%, a bit higher compared with wines, but lower than distilled liquors such as whiskey or tequila which can be 40%.
A popular distilled liquor in Japan is shochu. While both sake and shochu is enjoyed all over the country, sake is consumed a lot in cold snowy areas such as Niigata and Akita. Some areas such as southern Kyushu drink more shochu than sake.
Different kinds of Japanese Sake
Sake is separated to several different categories just like wines. It is complicated even for Japanese people.
I personaly recommend Sake categorized as “Junmai Ginjyo (純米吟醸）” for the balance of price and quality.
But it really depends. Let’s see why I chose Junmai Ginjyo, and how it categorized one by one.
Sake’s categories and grades (Regulated by law)
There is a regulation of sake, and what can be called sake is made with water, rice, and koji; those are fermented and filtered. The sake that follows this regulation of the government is called Seishu（清酒）and is categorized to 8 different kinds of sake. It is ok to recognize Seishu = Sake.
First, there are 2 factors that makes the difference of sake.
2. How much part of rice is used as ingredients.
Sake’s are categorized from the factors above, or the mixture of the factors above.
Junmai – pure rice sake, which is only sake from rice is used – rice, komekoji, and water.
The water quality does matter, so sake was well-developed where they have good rice and natural water.
Alcohol(ethanol) added to modify taste or add alcohol level, or to increase quantity. Some good brand sake also has alcohol in it, so it’s NOT like alcohol added = bad sake. It is said, you feel less headache next day but let’s see!
So we now know Junmai sounds good as it’s made from only rice.
Junmai is separated to mainly 3 categories: Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Dai Ginjo, depending on how refined the rice used was. If less than 60% of rice was used, it’s Junmai-Ginjo, If less than 50%, it’s called Junmai-Daiginjo
Please find the word “Junmai”純米、”Junmai – Ginjyo” 純米吟醸、”Junmai-Daiginjyo” 純米大吟醸” on the label.
The sake that has alcohol added is called Honjozo. And Honzojo is also separated into 3 categories depending on the polished level of rice.
Honjozo which is less than 70% of rice and less than 60% is called Tokubetsu Honjozo (special Honjozo). If rice is polished to less than 60%, it’s called Ginjo and less than 50% is called Daiginjo
While Honjozo has a limit of maximum 70 percentage usage of rice, Junmai doesn’t have a limit.
My favorite is Junmai-Ginjyo or Junmai-Daiginjyo, as I like a clear taste just with rice, but it’s NOT like Junmai = good and Honjozo = not good.
As you can use only core part of rice piece, Junmai-Daiginjo tends to be expensive. But sake price also varies by how much the sake is produced in the market, and how popular it is too. You don’t fail big in Junmai-Ginjyo or Junmai-Daiginjyo, but I have had a Junmai-Daiginjyo that is not clear and it wasn’t my favorite. Sometimes you find a gem in Tokubetsu Honjozo (alcohol added and rice is polished to less than 60%) .
How sake is categorized is not just restricted to this.
There are also additional ways to express it by Karakuchi (spicy) or Amakuchi (sweet) . To see what the difference is, please proceed to the next section, the process of making sake.
Process of making sake
Let’s see quickly how sake is made. Good water and good rice is necessary for the production of sake.
Any alcohol drink is made by fermentation of sugar, and what makes sake different from other alcohol drinks is the two processes of changing starch of rice to sugar and changing the sugar to alcohol which is happening in the barrel at the same time.
(1) Seimai (Polish rice)
First, polish the rice that is specially made for sake production, with less protein. The famous brand of rice for sake is Yamadanishiki 山田錦.
(2)Shinseki (Wash the rice and keep in water)
Wash the rice and get rid of nuka (outer coating) well. Keep that purified and washed rice in water.
(Actually this is the same process as when we cook rice at home! but not after this)
(3) Joumai (Steam the rice!)
Steam the rice. This rice is used or added in the process of (3.5) and (4) and (5)
This is the major part of the process. Please skip to (5) if this is too much information.
– (4-a) Making “Koji”
Add koji-kin bacteria to the rice. As the rice turn to “koji” thanks to koji-kin bacteria, the starch of rice turns to sugar, and then fermented to alcohol.
– (4-b) Making Shubo
Mix the koji with 3 ingredients. The first one is water (it shows how water is important sake, right?), and kobo (yeast), and rice. That becomes Shubo (written as ‘Mother of Sake’, in Japanese).
– (4-c)Making Moromi
Into that Shubo, koji, steamed rice and water are added. This adding process is done by little by little, and the process is called Shikomi. Another new word comes here. “Moromi” is the name of this mixture fermented in about a few weeks to a month.
In this process Moromi is made based on Shubo; two processes of changing starch of rice to sugar and changing the sugar to alcohol is happening in the barrel at the same time.
(5) Jousou (Squeeze)
After being fermented, squeeze that Moromi. There, Moromi is separated to Sake (liquid) and Sake-Kasu (solid) .
(6) Roka (Filter)
After the squeeze, that almost sake liquid will go through Roka（濾過) filtered. Now the liquid is so purified and called Seishu（清酒） by regulation. This process is necessary to be the clear typical Japanese sake we see.
(7) Hiire (Pasteurization)
Soon, you put the sake (now I can officially call it sake) on heat so that it stops fermenting. This process protects the quality of Sake.
(8) Chozo (Storage- Sleep)
The sake is kept in tank and it sleeps for a year. It is said this process makes the taste calm and mild.
And finally, the sake is bottled and dispatched after the 2nd pasteurization. It is now the sake will see you in the bar or shops. 🙂
As you saw, sake is greatly dependent on the sense of the manufacturers and their challenges to make a better sake every year. That is how we can enjoy different sake.
How you enjoy sake more in elegance
Now that you know the process of manufacturing sake, you can talk about sake and what a long process it went through. Thinking of the snowy country where the sake came from, or the warehouse kept cool even under the summer blue sky.
Sake can produce a casual fun time to get drunk and complain about your boss or politicians, and can also be a producer of an elegant, sophisticated time of the life. Whichever way you enjoy the sake, it can be even better experience if you have some preparation.
Prepare good cups – Ochoko
“Ochoko” is a small cup to drink sake. There are various materiasl such as glass and pottery. You can choose your favorite designed Ochoko, to enjoy your sake at home.
“Guinomi” (Cup) Guinomi is a big cup to drink sake, and the size varies. If Ochoko is not enough for your speed of drinking Sake, a Guinomi or glass cup is good.
You can find these products at any department store or shops that sell kitchen or dining goods.
Find your favorite temperature – cold or warm
You might be surprised by how the temperature changes the taste of sake.
With warm sake, it taste very soft and sweet; it makes you feel “Welcome winter! I missed you even though I hated you until now”. While cold sake with a clear smooth taste makes you feel “endlessly sophisticated joy, life is not that bad. I work hard again to meet one sip like this again”
When you meet ideal sake with ideal temperature, it’s another world.
Unique Japanese cuisine that goes with sake
While there are different foods goes with beer, such as edamame and yakitori in Japan, and pretzel in the Western countries, there are several foods that are considered to go with sake too. Most of them are unique and you need a bit brave to try, but you might get into it.
Some drinkers who love sake enjoy sake just with salt. Usually foods that go with sake are salty, so please see your body condition when you try.
Salty fermented stomach of fish. Ok, it sounds scary if I’m writing in English, but it is good. Shuto means, “stealing sake” which means you can’t stop eating and even steal sake. (It means it goes well with Sake, I think..)
Mostly coming from Kochi, where sake is very good and famous for tuna fish.
It’s very salty, so prepare sake, and make sure you only eat a bit at a tip of chopstick.
Buying Sake in Japan
Sake can be purchased at many supermarkets or even in convenience stores, but if you like to choose from many selections, I recommend sake stores in town.
If you like to choose as enjoying looking at different labels, I recommend big chain stores such as in department stores, or big liquor shops in town.
My Recommendation in Tokyo
I’d like to recommend some stores that you can enjoy choosing the liquor without feeling intimidation even the first time and if you don’t speak Japanese. Mostly department stores basement floor usually has liquor shops.
Major Sake Brands
Jozen Mizunogotoshi：上善如水 (Niigata prefecture)
Dassai：獺祭 (Yamaguchi prefecture)
Size of Sake bottle
180 / 300 /720 / 1800ml in glass bottle. I think the realistic bottle size you can bring home is less than 720ml. 720ml bottle is seen in any brand, and smaller size is limited to the brand.
You can’t choose from a big selection, but if you worry about carrying bottles, there is also a Japanese sake in paper pack.
How long you can enjoy sake after you bring home?
Sake doesn’t have expiration date as it last long because of its alcohol. However, usually it is better to enjoy it within a year after bottled.
The year and month the sake is bottled is written on it as required by law. Even though the sake has no expiration date, once it is opened, the taste changes after a few days, and more after a week.
* Please check and follow your country’s regulation for the duty and limit of quantity.
Bars and restaurants specialized for Japanese sake
You can enjoy Japanese Sake at any Japanese Izakaya style bar or specialized bar in Japan. If you want to try different types of Sake, you might want to
Sake is often served as１合 (Ichigo) 180ml in a bottle called “Tokkuri”, and serve to “Ochoko”.
In winter, you can ask for Atsukan (which is about 50℃)
In your next trip to Japan, how about exploring the liquor shops and finding your favorite sake!? Travels looking around the old temples and relaxing at the hot-springs is great, but if you have some mission or theme in the trip, it gets even more fun and you can actively enjoy Japan.
There is no right answer of how you enjoy sake, and which sake is the best. There are popularity and famous brands of sake, but any sake can the best for someone. Finding your favorite sake in Japan is also a fun journey.