What is Sake?




In the West it is simply sake, but here in Japan it has myriad names, none of which translate even remotely as ‘rice wine’. We’ll return to that in a moment. Generally it is termed nihonshu, written日本酒 which translates literally as ‘Japanese alcohol’. In its regional, manufacturer and style variations, it has all the equivalents of Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer, perfection and plonk.

 ‘Sake’ is the generic word for drinking alcohol, thus beer, whisky, gin etc. are all termed ‘sake’, so nihonshu is used to avoid confusion. If a Japanese person asks ‘Do you like sake?’ there is always the chance they mean ‘Do you like to drink?’ If they ask ‘Do you like nihonshu’, they are talking about… er, sake. That’s the Japanese fermented rice drink.

 The phrase ‘rice wine’ is technically a misnomer, as the process involved in creating sake is more like that in brewing beer. It tends to make anyone even familiar with the topic wince, yet the phrase is not without value in learning what the world of sake involves. That is to say, famed terroirs, unique regional specializations, centuries of tradition, mass-production, rotgut, limited-batch works of art, obsessive followers, casual tipplers, disappointment and joy. What is there not to like?

As in the world of wine, language and terminology regarding sake is incredibly complex, sophisticated, often baffling, and sometimes, downright silly. If you really get into sake, expect to hear someone say something along the lines of ‘This one has notes of creosote, jasmine, star fruit, and dew’. On the other hand, the strict government-imposed rules on sake categorization – is it a daiginjo or a junmaishu, for example – give you a fair idea of what you are going to taste. At least in theory.

Since this is just an introduction, let’s get some basics out of the way. It is pronounced ‘sa-ke’, not ‘sah-kay’, or ‘saki’. Both syllables have equal weight. ‘Sa’ is like the ‘sa’ in Saturday, ‘ke’ is like the ‘ke’ in the forename, Ken.

The Japanese have been drinking sake, since immigrants from Korea brought it, or something similar, into the country around the end of the third century AD. Long associated with Shinto, not least as it is created from rice, the ‘food of the Gods’, it began to be brewed by the general populace in the 12th century, became refined by the end of the 15th century and is regarded as ‘Japan’s national drink’. In reality, given the copious amounts of beer, wine, hard spirits drunk today here in Japan that is open to question.

Sake is made, obviously from rice, to which a koji fermenting agent is added. Primarily it is brewed in winter. It can be drunk at reishu chilled, nurukan warm, and atsukan hot or simply at room temperature, which is how professional tastings are conducted. The choice depends on type of sake, and personal preference. The finest varieties are only drunk cold, but not too cold.

Sake is basically categorized according to the degree to which the rice grain has been polished. This gives us: : junmai, honjozo, junmai ginjo or ginjo, junmai daiginjo or daiginjo, namazake and nigori. The most polished, literally and figuratively, and thus most expensive is daiginjo, usually only served on special occasions.        

Drinking jizake ‘local’ or ‘regional’ sake, with regional specialty food kyodo ryori, is a sure fire recipe for success. However, the key to enjoying sake is to simply follow your taste buds, your intuition, and your sense of adventure. Kampai! as they say. Cheers.

 © John F. Ashburne.