All About Sake (and How to Drink It)

A recent trip to Japan prompted our interest in learning about the culture, especially how to drink sake.

Read on to find out how sake is make and associated traditions and etiquette. Kampai!


What is Sake?

Sake (pronounced sak-eh), is a traditional Japanese rice wine. While the exact origins of this delicious drink are unclear, we know it existed at least as far back as the 3rd century.

At first, it was only made by the imperial court and members of larger temples and shrines. Many rituals were developed around the act of drinking it, some of which persist today.

By the 12th century, the drink was much more widespread. Sake’s rich and lengthy history has given its makers thousands of years to perfect the fermentation process.

How Is Sake Made?

Brewing sake is a delicate process. It is usually made from strains of rice called sakamai.

Unlike the rice Americans are used to eating, the starch in sakamai is formed in a kernel in the center of each grain, clearly separated from the proteins and fats.

This starch is an essential element of sake production, while the proteins and fats can ruin the taste. To prevent this from happening, Japanese sake rice is polished before being fermented.

The polishing process removes the superficial layer of protein and fat, leaving only the inner kernel of starch.

After polishing, the rice is washed, soaked, and steamed. The water used during these steps is especially important, because its mineral content affects the taste and color of the final product.

For example, iron contaminates the sake’s taste and darkens its color. On the other hand, potassium and magnesium are essential for the growth of brewing yeast.

Finding the right balance of these elements is essential. Centuries before we had the tools to test for chemicals, sake makers carefully chose water from certain wells and rivers to produce the desired result.

Fermented Rice

Next, it’s time to begin the three-step process of fermentation.

First, brewers use a mold called koji kin to ferment the cooked rice. Like other fermentation processes, this mold releases probiotics and several kinds of sugar.

Once koji kin is added to the rice, the mixture is called koji.  

Second, the koji is mixed with steamed rice, water, and large amounts of yeast. As it ferments, this is called shubo.

In the third step, the shubo is mixed with more steamed rice and water, becoming moromi. The moromi is left to ferment.

As moromi ferments, the mold in the koji consumes the rice starch and leaves behind sugars. The yeast converts these sugars into alcohol.

The sake is pressed, separating the beverage from any remaining solid matter. Much like a fine wine, it is then left to age.

Oftentimes this product is so alcoholic that brewers choose to dilute it. It then goes through one final process of pasteurization before bottling.

Rice Polishing Ratio

There are numerous different kinds of sake. Each category is defined by a slight difference in the brewing process, which has a big impact on the alcohol content and flavor of the final product.

The main differences between these types of sake come from two factors: the rice polishing ratio, and the addition of distilled alcohol.

The rice polishing ratio describes the amount of protein and fat removed from each grain of rice during the polishing process.

The more the rice is polished, the cleaner the taste of the sake will be.

Less polished grains produce a drink that tastes a lot like rice itself, with a more savory flavor.

For example, the rice used for Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo sakes is only polished by 50% or less.

This sake is more fragrant than Honjozu (less than 70% polished) or Tokubetso Honjozu (less than 60% polished).

Adding Distilled Alcohol

The addition of distilled alcohol, at the end of the brewing process, also changes the flavor. Sakes without distilled alcohol have a richer taste, and those with a higher alcohol content are simpler and smoother.

You can tell whether a bottle of sake has undergone this process just by its name.

For strains without additional alcohol, the word Junmai (which means “pure rice”) will appear in the title. Junmai Shu and Junmai Ginjo are examples of this.

On average, sake has an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 15-16%. The exact figure varies widely; some types of sake have only 8% alcohol, and others have as much as 20%.

Even less alcoholic sake, however, has a higher ABV than other popular drinks.

Most beer, for example, has an ABV of 4-7%. Be sure to enjoy sake responsibly, especially if you’re more used to other beverages!

Much like wine, beer, and liquor, the various types of sake can taste wildly different. For a light, fruity flavor, more similar to the taste of rice itself, try Daiginjo or Ginjo.

If you prefer a drink with a rich body and a smoother, more subtle taste, Honjozo may be for you.

These basic categories are enough to get you started, but you don’t have to stop there.

Bear in mind, this drink has been popular for thousands of years.

There are countless varieties to try, and you may be surprised by just how distinctive they are. 

Sake Served with Food

Should Sake be Served Warm or Cold?

As many Americans know, sake is one of the few alcoholic drinks that is often served warm. It is a common misconception, however, that all sake should be served this way.

Up until recently – about 40 years ago – the brewing process produced a much rougher, woodier taste than you’ll find in modern-day sake.

Drinking sake warm was once popular because the heat masked these flavors.

Today, sake is no longer brewed in the wooden casks that produced those effects.

As a result, warming the quality sake can actually detract from its more subtle notes.

Some sake sommeliers suggest this simple guideline: cheaper brews should be warmed, while premium sake should be served chilled.

This rule does not apply to every kind of sake, since some of the highest-quality brands are best when served warm.

Sometimes, breweries include this suggestion right on the bottle; in other cases, you should seek advice from an expert.

How to Warm Sake

To warm your own sake, you can follow one of several methods.

The most traditional way is to create a simple double boiler by placing a carafe of sake into a large pot of boiling water.

Temperature control is very important here. If you use lower heat for a longer time, you risk lowering the alcohol content of the sake.

However, you should definitely not bring the beverage itself to a boil. It’s best to place the carafe directly into water that is already boiling, and leave it for only 2-3 minutes.

When the bottom of the carafe is hot to the touch (but not so hot as to burn your finger), it is ready to drink.

If this method isn’t available, there are many other ways to heat your sake. Some sake brewers even pour their sake directly into a teakettle!

Methods like these should only be used by experienced sake drinkers, as they can damage the drink if done incorrectly.

If you have the time, it’s best to experiment with your sake to find the temperature you like best.

Do this by chilling a bottle of sake, then taking it out and allowing it to gradually warm up to room temperature, tasting it every so often.

This is not just a way to learn more about your own tastes; it’s also a great way to start a party, or just pass some times with close friends.

Sake Etiquette and Traditions

Much like wine, sake can be ordered in a glass, a porcelain carafe (or tokkuri), or a bottle.

One standard glass of sake is approximately 4 ounces – much smaller than other alcoholic drinks. A standard bottle of sake is 24 ounces, which can serve 4-6 people.

When you’re drinking in a group, sake etiquette states that you should never pour for yourself. A waiter might serve you at a restaurant, or a group of friends at home can take turns pouring for each other.

Even if you’re hosting, someone else should fill your cup.

In Japan, this custom applies to all drinks, including wine and beer. It encourages more social interaction, boosting the sense of camaraderie among drinkers.

As one journalist writes, “sake is meant to be a team sport.”

Drinking begins when everyone has a full glass. Sipping your sake before the people around you have been served is considered rude, especially in a business setting. If there is a clear hierarchy among you – for instance, if you’re a VP drinking with your company’s CEO – allow the person of the highest status to raise their glass the highest when you toast.

In formal settings, the person pouring sake should keep two hands on the carafe as they do so.

Likewise, the person receiving the sake should hold their cup in two hands, grasping it with one hand and supporting it from beneath with the other.

The more formal the occasion, the more important it is to observe these gestures.

How to Drink Sake from the Masu (Wooden Box)

Sake is a special drink, and sometimes even ceremonial. Its religious origins demand respect, even from modern-day drinkers. It is meant to be savored.

Despite the small serving size, downing it like a shot of American liquor would be disrespectful.

On some occasions, like weddings, birthdays, and funerals, there are even more specific customs to be observed when consuming sake.

At these important events, sake is sometimes served in a masu, or a small wooden box.

Usually this means the masu holds a cup of sake, almost like a coaster.

When the drink is poured, the server intentionally lets it overflow the cup into the box. This ritual symbolizes friendship, generosity, and celebration.

After sake is poured into the masu, the drinker lowers their head to sip directly from the glass without picking it up.

Once the level of liquid has gone down, you may lift the box and glass together, using two hands, and continue to drink. (Alternatively, you may pour the remainder of the sake from the glass into the box, and drink directly from it.)

When the glass is completely empty, lift the box with both hands, grasping two corners diagonally across from each other.

Bring the corner between them to your lips, so you’re looking down at a diamond shape. Drink from the corner of the box.

In some ceremonies, the host may pour sake directly into the masu, or even allow it to overflow down a pyramid of these boxes.

In this case, it is appropriate to drink directly from the masu, as described above.

Drinking from a Sake Cup

When you enjoy sake in an informal setting – drinking in your home or at a casual meal with friends – you’ll often have the choice to sip it from a glass or a traditional ochoko.

The ochoko is a small porcelain cup. Its main selling point is that it insulates the sake, letting the drinker enjoy it at the temperature at which it was served.

However, in modern times, connoisseurs have found that the material of the ochoko can interfere with sake’s delicate flavors. It is equally acceptable to drink sake from a small glass instead.

Summary: How to Drink Sake

As you can see, sake is more than just a tasty beverage. Its history is rich with tradition and ritual, and it’s important for even beginners to show respect for that lineage.

Don’t be intimidated, though! There’s a reason that sake, once reserved for royalty, is now a drink of the masses.

The customs around it are designed to build community and strengthen both business and personal relationships.

Learning about this popular drink can be a personal and creative experience.

Try tasting different kinds of sake, served in different types of glasses, at various temperatures, to find your personal favorite.

At many restaurants, you can taste a few varieties before ordering a glass; don’t be shy about asking questions and getting recommendations from more experienced sake enthusiasts.

Sharing this drink with them celebrates both ancient and modern Japanese culture.

As long as you follow the appropriate customs, you have the opportunity to learn, show respect, and develop your own unique tastes.

Who knew that sharing a drink could do so much?

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