Choosing and Enjoying Sake: Part 1

What is Sake?

Nihon Shu, better known as sake, has been drunk for almost 2,000 years. Initially from China, rice wine and its recipe was brought to Japan by travellers and merchants. Records dating back to the third century show that an intoxicating drink called “Kuchikami” was made by young maidens chewing grains, such as millet, rice, chestnuts and acorns. This mixture was then spat into basins and left to ferment and later drank. Over the past couple of millenniums, this recipe and lots of new types of sake have improved greatly with the use of better ingredients and advanced techniques. It is hoped that in the future, the beverage will continue to evolve and continue to be a fabulous drink for generations to come.

Sake is made from rice, water, koji and yeast. Good sake has no other ingredients other than maybe some added alcohol to balance its taste and texture. Initially used as an offering to the Gods, sake was made mainly in temples and shrines. Highly prized, only Emperors, Shoguns, nobility and foreign distinguished guests, priests and monks were allowed to drink it. As early as the twelfth century, historians noted that sake was offered to important guests both hot and chilled depending on the season of the year. It has been the chosen drink for events such as weddings, work achievements and celebrations over the centuries and now, of course, drunk by friends with or without food.

Contrary to belief, sake is not distilled and not a spirit, but can be distilled. This is then called a shochu which can have a high alcoholic content of anything between 20-45% depending on the type of distillation, blending or otherwise.

Sake is more akin to wine or beer; the starch from the steamed rice grains is converted into sugar whilst the yeasts work on the newly made saccharide mixture, turning it into an average 14-16% alcoholic drink. Sparkling sake can have a low alcohol content of 8% and undiluted sake or Genshu can have an alcohol content of up to a maximum of 22%. Sake is less acidic, more alcoholic, cleaner and (often) sweeter than wine and beer and is crystal clear, cloudy, murky, sparkling or a combination of all.

Check out Japan Centre’s wide range of sake in one of our London stores on our website here. For more advice about choosing and enjoying sake, you can read part 2 and part 3 of the trilogy.

Marie Cheong-Thong

Director British Sake Association

Association of Wine Educators