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What is Sake?

By Natsuki Kikuya – Sake Samurai, WSET Sake Qualification Manager

After spending past 12 years introducing, teaching, and promoting sake here in UK, the public response to this drink has changed phenomenally. People use to back away when I brought free sake samplings at my first restaurant worked as a sake sommelier, and now I see so many are leaning towards to learn more about it with an even seen enthusiasm. However, when I say the word “sake”, majority of people in UK still think it is a kind of high proofed abv only served scorching hot. Japanese restaurants have been meeting points for many to taste and experience sake, yet many have never chosen it to casually open for dinner with their daily non-Japanese home cooking.

If you trace the food culture and history of Japan, there is a unavoidable relations between our land, abundant source of water and rice production. Ever since the Japanese descendants had brought wet rice cultivation culture from China over 5,000 years ago, rice has always been the center of our diet and has been playing the essential role for the Japanese food culture. As a byproduct of rice, purely fermented alcohol drink from rice and water "sake" became a national alcoholic beverage of Japan since over 2,500 years ago.

Because It was firstly produced within the shrines of Japan's oldest religion Shinto, Sake still is a key element of many Shinto rituals and Japanese festivals. Sake is linked to Japanese culture in many ways and expresses the beauty of Japanese nature, traditions, culture and whole spirit.

It is often pronounced "SAH-ki" by English speakers, yet in Japanese it is more like "SAH-KEH". It literally means “alcohol” in general so if you want to specify this drink we call it “Nihonshu 日本酒” in Japan, which translates as “Japanese alcohol”.

Sake is gently fermented, and is in a family of beer and wine with an average of 15-16% abv. It can be enjoyed in the widest range of temperatures from chilled to warm or hot, depending on the style or flavor characteristics of sake.

From following articles, I would like to explore more details in ingredients, categories, tasting, paring, temperature and history of sake.



The reason why sake is historically related to Japanese Shinto religion comes from sake’s main ingredients; rice. Our diet has been nourished by the wet rice cultivation “Inasaku 稲作” culture since 2,500 years ago, and within Shinto religion, people believed the existence of “Inadama 稲魂”, that rice paddy has a soul and spirit. Therefore Rice and Sake has been the religion of Japan throughout the history.

There are two types of rice for sake making, table rice and “Shuzo-koteki-mai 酒造好適米”. Table rice is everyday rice that we eat as a meal. It contains more fat and protein, and does not have “Shinpaku 心白”, appearance of starch in the centre. Shuzo-koteki-mai is designed to meet the needs of making good quality sake and it has special features to be qualified.

1. Large in size (25-30g/ per 100 grain)
2. Starch in the centre is apparent (called as Shinpaku)
3. Minimum amounts of protein and fat
4. The grain has a high absorption level
5. Hard on the shell and soft inside (when it is steamed)

Rice production for sake only takes up 5% of whole rice production in Japan and within that number, it is only 1% of them are for Shuzo-koteki-mai. Since it is not easy to grow, it tends to be high in price. The king of sake rice, Yamada-nishiki 山田錦 from special A region, which is most expensive and has high quality, could cost about three times more than the regular Shuzo-koteki-mai does. Even though Shuzo-koteki-mai is an ideal choice, there are more breweries today using table rice to beautiful sake in lower price. Please check the name of rice used next time you encounter Sake!

WATER 仕込み水

Brewing sake takes enormous amounts of water. From washing and steaming rice, cleaning all the equipment as well as fermentation stage. It will normally require about 50 times the weight of the rice. Also, it makes up 80% of the entire ingredients, since the rice grain does not contain any juice. It is natural to say that the quality of the sake is influence a lot on the quality of the water.

As Japanese islands are surround by the oceans, Japan has an abundant access to the water from the mountain, river and ocean, and there are several areas well known for high quality water. Most sake brewery tends to locate in the best water source in each region. Rice is something you could buy from other area but the source of water is an asset from the nature.

Generally, water could be classified by hard water and soft water depends on significant quantity of dissolved minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. Both of them do have a potential to make good quality of sake but the most suitable water is believe to be “semi-hard water” known as Miyamizu宮水 of Nada region. Hard water is rich in minerals that fastens the fermentation, resulting dry and masculine sake. Soft water has less minerals and create slower & gentle fermentation, and this results softer and feminine style sake, known as “Fushimizu伏水” of Kyoto region. If you have any chance to visit Sake brewery, we highly recommend to try their “Shikomi-mizu 仕込み水”, the water of the berwery used for sake making. The quality of water tells stories itself how the flavour and texture of each sake was protected from generation to generation.


Koji-kin (麹菌), in scientific term Aspergillus Oryzae, is a type of mold spores that has been a foundation for the fermenting food culture of Japan for many years. It is a beneficial and safe variety of bacteria used for Miso, Shouyu (醤油, soy sauce), Sake, Mirin (味醂, sweet sake for cooking), rice vinegar, Shochu and various other ingredients in Japan.

Grape juice contains sugars, which ferment in the presence of yeast, but with beverages made from grains, such as sake and beer, it is first necessary to use enzymes to break down the starch in the grain to convert it to sugar before yeast fermentation. In beer brewing, malt is used as the source of these enzymes, but for making sake, Kome-Koji (米麹) is the key player. Kome-Koji is steamed rice inoculated with koji-kin, it creates enzymes that convert rice starch into sugar, which the kobo (酵母, yeast) feeds on. Koji also produces the other type of enzyme that breaks down protein and produces amino acid and peptide, which create unique characteristic of each sake.

Koji production is the heart of the sake-brewing process, and this process is most exercised, in the mind of master brewer. It requires constant control and adjustment of temperature throughout its 40 to 48 hours process in Koji-muro (麹室), a special temperature-controlled room and traditionally covered with cedar wood with electric heating wire or convection heater. (In modern settings more and more stainless-steel covered koji-muro can be seen.) The koji itself releases heat and koji temperature has to be checked every 2 hours in day and night.


Yeast, Kobo 酵母 in Japanese plays a critical role in determining sake quality. Until the early twentieth century, sake was made using naturally occurring yeast. Over the decades, technologies improved and there were more and more practices of purely isolating and selecting yeast from the moromi (醪 main mash) of a brewery that had produced good sake. Many breweries have their own prosperity yeast strains which is discovered and exclusive to them.

Since 1906, yeast selected in this manner has been distributed largely and widely by the Brewing Society of Japan as Kyokai-kobo (協会酵母, Brewing Society yeast). Kyokai-kobo is numbered, and packed in ampules. Currently, the most widely used yeasts are Sake yeast kyokai #6, #7, #9, #10, and #14. Each produces its own aroma and taste characteristics and the specific choice depends on the desired sake quality. More recently, brewers have been utilizing microbial technology to produce yeasts designed to increase the amount of esters delivering a fruity aroma.

After 1990s, numerous yeast strains produced by several prefectures with advanced area of study had appeared in the market such as Shizuoka kobo, Yamagata Kobo, Akita Kobo and Fukushima Kobo. Even though using cultivated yeast such as Kyokai-kobo / regional yeasts are still majority, it is becoming slight trend by handful producers to go back in tradition to revive using ambient yeast or proprietary yeast (蔵付き酵母).

Categories & Label Terms

At beginning stage, harvested rice is polished (milled) down to certain size by removing outer layers. This process is essential to decide the category of sake and its style. As each grain of sake rice contains "Shinpaku / heart" of rice in the middle which is high starch concentration, the outer layers of impurities such as proteins, vitamins, fats and lipids would be removed by rice polishing, in order to make the sake purer and cleaner styles.

Here are some categories of Sake: