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A Beginner’s Guide to Sake

Posted By in Expat Life, Japan, Travel Tips | 23 comments

A Beginner’s Guide to Sake

It wasn’t too long ago that I thought of sake as a slightly mysterious drink that I was occasionally offered in sushi restaurants. Then I moved to Takayama, a town famous for (among other things) its amazing sake, and this unfamiliar Japanese liquor became a focal point of my new local culture.

sake festival takayama

The year’s new barrels of sake are unveiled

There are sake festivals, numerous breweries, and dozens of different sake brands to taste and buy. There’s no question that I’m still a sake beginner myself, but here is a summary of my recent sake education (so far, anyway):

What Is It?

a beginner's guide to sake

Sake is made from rice, but it’s not a rice wine as many people (myself included at first) mistakenly believe.

Overall, the brewing process for sake is similar to the process used to make beer. A microorganism called koji is mashed with water and yeast, and then combined with steamed white rice. This whole mixture is filtered to produce the sake. My favourite part of the brewing process is the “sake song”, which the brewers sing in unison to ensure that they carry out the brewing steps rhythmically and accurately.  The sake song is generally associated with older, more traditional brewing practices, but at least a few breweries in Takayama still sing it.

How to Drink It

In Japanese, sake actually means “alcohol”, which could refer to beer, wine, vodka, or pretty much any other alcoholic drink. Therefore, if you just order “sake” at a restaurant in Japan, they will usually clarify that you want “Japanese sake”, or nihonshu.

how to drink sake

Generally, if we order sake at a restaurant, it is served in a vase-like container called a tokkuri, along with shot-glass-sized cups, called ochoko.  At festivals, sake is often served in a flat dish called a sakazuki. We’ve also been served sake in a traditional wooden box cup, called a masu.

sake served in a wooden box

A normal drinking glass is placed in the masu, and then filled with sake until it overflows slightly. You can then drink the sake from the glass, as well as the excess that has spilled over into the masu.

Sake can be drunk cold, hot or at room temperature. As you might guess, hot sake is popular in the winter, while cold sake is more popular in the summer. That said, high quality sake is not usually drunk hot in any season because the heat ruins the drink’s subtle flavours. You can heat sake by bringing a pot of water to a boil, and then placing the tokkuri into the pot, which allows the sake to be warmed by the boiling water.

I’m still working on the art of sake tasting. Most sake reminds me of wine, with some brands tasting relatively fruity and sweet, and others having a drier, more alcohol-y taste. One type of sake, however, that even newbies can identify is nigori. While most sake is clear, nigori has a cloudy appearance because it is unfiltered. The remaining rice grain residue gives nigori a distinctly different taste and texture compared to normal, filtered sake. I didn’t like nigori at first, but I later learned that it’s important to shake the bottle and mix up the sediment before drinking it, which really improves the taste.

Sake in Takayama

The best sake is produced in colder regions, like Takayama, because the brewing microorganisms function best at low temperatures. It’s easy to find breweries because they typically have large cedar balls hanging outside their doors, which indicate that the most recent batch of sake has been tasted.

cedar balls mark sake breweries

All the sake breweries in Takayama offer tastings, but Harada Sake Brewery on Sannomachi Street is my personal favourite. In this brewery, you simply buy an ochoko cup for 100 Yen ($1), and then you have unlimited access to a fridge containing about 12 different kinds of sake.

Most of Takayama’s breweries have been producing sake for hundreds of years, so in addition to being great places for tasting, these breweries have a certain amount of cultural and historical significance. Hirase Sake Brewery offers free tours year-round with advanced reservations. Or, from mid-January to March each year, many other sake breweries allow tourists to watch aspects of the brewing process.

 

Lastly, if you want to get all kinds of compliments on your stellar Japanese skills, you can toast by saying kampai, which means “cheers”, before sipping your sake.

 

Do you like sake? What are some of your favourite drinks around the world?

 

 

23 Comments

  1. Travelrooz.net September 18, 2013

    Great post on Sake! Enjoy the local authentic stuff while you have close access to it 🙂 It almost reminds me of the equivalent of being near a brewery or winery. Always take advantage of the local good stuff 🙂
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    • waysofwanderers September 19, 2013

      Definitely! Plus, I find the processes for making all 3 pretty interesting!

  2. Wondernuts September 19, 2013

    I pretty much can't stomach sake anymore. If I get a taste of it, I'm done. =( So no, I guess I don't like it. But, I am a fan of beer.

    • waysofwanderers September 19, 2013

      Really? Did you have one experience of really overdoing it ;)?

  3. foreignsanctuary September 19, 2013

    I have tried sake before but I didn't really like it. I guess it's not my cup of tea! 😉

    I remember the first time I tried rice wine. It was my first year in Taiwan and it was at the first wedding I attended here. I poured a little and gangbei (bottoms up) and when I finished drinking it, I regretted it immediately. My mouth burned and my throat felt like it was on fire! Needless to say, it was my first and last time drinking rice wine!
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    • waysofwanderers September 19, 2013

      It's funny, I just assumed that most people liked sake, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Brent's brother came to visit us and he was excited to try it – then he did and he was not impressed at all!

    • waysofwanderers September 19, 2013

      Nice! And I'll have to try baijio sometime – I've never heard of it before!

    • waysofwanderers September 20, 2013

      Is Nozawa Onsen area known for sake? I've never heard of it.

    • waysofwanderers September 20, 2013

      Very true! Takayama pretty much has perfect sake brewing conditions.

  4. Steph (@20YH) September 20, 2013

    I wish that when we had been in Japan I had known how amazing sake was—we didn't discover this until we were already half way through our time there! I had always thought sake would be really harsh and astringent—like vodka, I guess—but was delighted to find it is much softer and tastier than a rice-based beverage has any right to be! We didn't visit any of the sake breweries in Takayama, but we did spend a morning doing an impromptu tasting tour while in the nearby village of Hida-Furakawa. Sure it was 11 am, but is there ever a wrong time to drink sake? 😉

    • waysofwanderers September 21, 2013

      I thought so too – I guess the clear ones look a little like vodka, so maybe that's why we tend to make that association.

      At our first tasting, we ended up having more than we planned – the other tourists kept encouraging us to have more and try different kinds, so we ended up a little buzzed at 1pm. Thus, I have to agree, there is no wrong time to drink sake, haha.

  5. Colleen Brynn September 21, 2013

    This is a great article, very informative. I had no idea about pretty much any of this when it comes to sake. So thank you! When (and it IS when) I go to Japan one day, I will be all the more prepared to dive into sake sampling. That large cedar ball is very interesting!
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    • waysofwanderers September 22, 2013

      I'm glad you found it helpful! And yeah, the cedar balls are very useful for those of us who can't read Japanese. I at least know which buildings have sake!

    • waysofwanderers September 25, 2013

      I just tried umeshu for the first time a few weeks ago! It's so sweet and tasty. It goes down a little bit too easily, haha ;).

  6. TammyOnTheMove October 6, 2013

    I once tried sake in a Japanese restaurant in the UK and it tasted like spirit, so I wasn't too keen on it. I would love to try some sake that actually tastes more like wine though. I guess I'll have to come to Japan to get the good stuff.
    My recent post Flashback Friday: The Galapagos islands in photos

    • waysofwanderers October 6, 2013

      There's definitely a whole range: I've tried some sake that is light and fruity, while others are pretty strong. But yes, I think the best ones are definitely brewed in Japan :).

  7. Hot Sake October 18, 2013

    Nice article! You offer some excellent information here for people who are new to Sake. You and the readers of this blog may be interested in reading more Sake information on our website at http://www.SakeSocial.com – we call it the "Sake Social fountain of knowledge." Thanks for sharing more information!
    My recent post It's all about the sake packaging!

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