Sake: the Traditional Japanese Alcohol

Commonly interpreted as a rice-wine, although made through a brewing process more similar to that of beer, sake (pronounced sa-ke) is a traditional Japanese alcohol that is popular not only amongst Japanese people but has now become a sought-after drink worldwide. There are many different types of sake, as well as plenty of ways of drinking it.

Types of Sake

Although sake is the widely known term for this drink outside of Japan, this actually refers to all alcoholic beverages in Japanese. Nihonshu is the more specific name for the rice-based alcohol, but for this article, we’ll use the colloquialism sake. It is generally accepted that there are six different types of sake in substance. Junmai, literally meaning pure rice, is a sake that has no additions, consisting of water, koji mould, yeast and rice polished to 70%. These ingredients are the general base for the other five types of sake with some variation of rice polishing and/or an addition of distilled alcohol; Honjozo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 70%; Junmai Ginjo with rice polished to 60%; Ginjo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 60%; Junmai Daiginjo, with rice polished to 50%; Daiginjo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 50%. Additionally, these types of sake can also be made in different ways. An example of this is the cloudy sake generally known as Nigori which is produced when the brewer leaves in some of the rice polishings. There are also many variations of sake specifically for celebrations or seasonal purposes.

Sake and Socialising

Sake can be served on many different occasions and at varied venues. Drinking in Japan is essentially a social ritual, often post work or with new business partners as a way of cementing friendships. Sake is also very common at more formal engagements or meals and the more important the event, the greater the quality of sake. An evening usually starts with a nama beeru (draft beer), followed by a clinking of the glasses and saying kanpai before moving onto individual alcohol ha (faction) preference. When drinking sake, it is customary to pour for others, usually your superior, you wouldn’t pour for yourself unless alone. There are also many specific linguistic phrases that refer to the social stages of drinking, such as kyo wa enryo shimasu (I will be abstaining today).

Due to how refined sake can be, it is common to have sake tastings. These tastings are for generally appreciating the specific aromas and fragrances of each sake in company, just like the equivalents of whiskey or wine tasting in Western countries.

History of Sake

Although sake can be traced back in China to 4,000 BCE, it was first produced on a large scale in Japan. Sake was first introduced to Japan in around 300 BCE after the start of rice cultivation. Initially for personal usage by individual communities or families, sake rice soon grew into an agricultural product on a large scale. When production boomed, the largest area was around Nada, close to modern Kobe, and was mostly only for noble families. The Shinto religion had great use for sake, employing it for purification of temples, as offerings to the Gods and in wedding ceremonies as part of a process called san san kudo. Sake was often a staple drink served by geisha in tea houses, poured after the tea and in a delicate and refined way to match the essence of the drink. Sake gained popularity over time and production continued to rise, with cloudy sake being the only version until the seventeenth century. Industrial advancements brought sake onto the market as a much more accessible beverage, making the drink available to the poor too.

How to Drink Sake

Sake can be served hot or chilled, often varying either seasonally or by the particular type, although high-quality sake should not be heated as it can cause loss of flavour and spoil the subtlety of the taste. It is best to store your sake in a cool, dry place and it should not be left long after opening. It is often served from a tokkuru (a porcelain flask) into a traditional sake cup, (sakazuki or choko), or a wine glass if the sake is chilled. Saucer-like cups can also be used for sake in special occasions or rituals.

Again, depending on the variation and strength, you can either sip your sake over time or drink it quickly, though sake is quite potent so you might want to be careful here! With so many different flavours of sake, you might like to choose what food, if any at all, you want to accompany it based on which flavours and ingredients complement each other.

Sake’s Significance on Atelier

On Atelier Japan, we have an exquisite selection of finely crafted traditional sake cups and servers, each with unique and beautiful designs and masterfully crafted by our makers, Kazariya-Ryo and Rokubeygama respectively.