Drinking sake in Japan is something I always look forward to. During our visits we've been lucky enough to enjoy a lot of sake with some local experts, but we're still just beginning to get to grips with this fascinating and bewildering beverage. Here are a few pointers to send you on your very merry way.
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice- specifically, from rice, water, yeast and a mould known as koji (Aspergillus oryzae). Unlike wine, which is fermented, or whiskey, which is distilled, sake is brewed. So, if you were going to compare it to anything, it's probably closest to beer.
The alcohol content of sake is about 20%, which is then watered down to give a content of about 15%, about the same as a full-bodied red wine. The fact that the naturally occurring alcohol is slightly diluted means that more subtle flavours can emerge.
Simple sake etiquette
Usually your sake will be served in a small flask called a tokkuri and poured into a small ceramic cup called a sakazuki or choko, but you'll also find wine glasses are used, especially for chilled sake. Sometimes though, you'll have your sake served in a masu, which is a wooden box traditionally used to measure rice. This will usually be placed in a saucer, with the sake poured so that it overflows. This indicates generosity, and you should tip the excess back into the masu as you drink.
Kampai is the traditional toast you give while drinking sake. It's important to make sure that you fill the cups of the people you're drinking with- it's bad manners to pour your own drink. You can taste your sake like you would wine- with a small sip first to appreciate the flavours.
Make sure to keep drinking water, or mizu, during your sake session. You'll thank yourself the next day.
Where to drink sake
If you haven't got a friendly Japanese-speaker, or sake enthusiast to go drinking with, there are two things you can do. The first is to put yourself into the hands of the staff wherever you're drinking. This can be a risky move if you're on a budget. The second is to drink in a bar which is designed to let you try different sake varieties.
Some izakayas will offer sake flights, which will let you sample three or four sakes at once. In Shibuya, we love the small, but perfectly formed, Sake Stand, which has a selection of bottles open on any one night, all ready for you to try. And the excellent Kurand chain has an incredible offer, with over 100 sakes available to try in an unlimited tasting menu for just ¥3000 + tax. With a focus on boutique breweries and the ability to BYO snacks, you're set for a great evening.
Oh, and if you're set on avoiding human interaction, you can head to Echigo Yuzawa Station and select from the 96 varieties available from the vending machines in the Ponshukan. Just ¥500 will get you a sake cup and five tokens.
Like wine, sake prices vary from the disturbingly cheap to the eye-wateringly expensive. Also like wine, you'll generally get what you pay for. There are three main factors that impact the price: rice, milling and craft.
While cheaper varieties might be made from regular rice, premium sake will be made from sake rice. This is very different from the rice we eat. Even the plants look different- they're taller, and the rice grains are bigger, with a concentration of starch in the middle.
Like grapes and wine, there are different varieties of sake rice, all with their own character, and all with areas, or terroir, that they're best suited to.
How much the rice is milled has a big impact on how much it costs. The starch is in the centre of the grain, the milling process is removing the fat and protein surrounding it. Of course, more milling means more costs.
Seimai-buai is the term for the percentage of the grain's original size that remains after milling. For example, a seimai-buai of 60% means that before it was brewed, 40% of the grain was milled away.
Most sake is factory-produced. But the best sake tends to be made by hand. Making sake this way is very labour-intensive, but can produce incredible results- and a higher final price.
There are four basic sake types, and each one is brewed differently. The four combine to form what is known as Special Designation Sake, or Tokutei Meishoshu. It's important to know that the four kinds have a lot of overlap- only super-experts can tell what grade a sake belongs to by tasting to.
Away from these four premium grades you'll find Futsu-shu, which is essentially any sake that isn't one of these- think a regular or 'table' sake. This sake makes up the majority of the market, and has no minimum requirement for milling and tends to have distilled alcohol added to it. It's also cheap! Hello One-Cup.
You'll see that some of the premium types also have added distilled alcohol. This addition is part of the 'art of the brewer', and is done to create different flavour profiles. Cheap sake might have alcohol added purely for volume, but alcohol is added to refined sake in a carefully controlled way to give an enhanced flavour.
Made from highly milled rice, with a seimai-buai of at least 60%, this sake is also fermented slightly differently- at colder temperatures for a longer period. this sake may also have distilled alcohol added. The overall effect is refined, aromatic- even fruity- and complex. A newer evolution, ginjo-shu has only been on the market for around 40 years.
The rice to make daiginjo-shu is polished to a very high degree, with a seimai-buai of no more than 50%, and often as low as 35%, so that 65% of the grain is milled away. This is a very labour-intensive kind of sake, and an expensive one.
'Pure rice' sake with no added alcohol, junmai is brewed just with rice, water and koji. A little more acidic than other types, you'll notice a fuller flavour from this sake. The seimai-buai is at least 70%.
Brewed with rice, water, koji and a small amount of added distilled alcohol. Water is added later, so the overall alcohol content doesn't change. Again, the seimai-buai is at least 70%, and with the added alcohol, this gives a fragrant, lighter, drier sake, which also works well when served warm.
Other terms to look out for
When you're doing a tasting, or shopping for sake there are a few other terms that might help you identify what you like.
Nama-zake: Sake that is not pasteurised is called nama-zake, which roughly means 'in a natural state'. So, all of the four sake types can be nama-zake. Commonly enjoyed in spring especially during the hanami celebrations, you'll need to keep it in the fridge. Once you crack a bottle, you'll enjoy a fresh and bright sake.
Nigori-zake: Sake that is unfiltered. This sake is opaque or cloudy in appearance, from the unfermented rice solids which are left in the brew, and tends to be creamy and smooth in texture. It's not as subtle as filtered sake, and generally needs to be served cold.
Sparkling sake: Similar to a sparkling wine, this sake has a second fermentation process, which gives it a fizz. The overall alcohol content is generally lower, and the flavour tends to be sweet.
Jizake jizake: Craft sake, from a boutique brewery. Like craft beer, there are a large number of smaller producers making small-batch sakes, which can be a little quirkier than those from the mainstream.
Learn more about tasting sake