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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?