Understanding Sake


Although sake is described as “rice wine” it is, in fact, brewed in the same way that beer is. It is clear in color, and has a low proof alcohol which is made from yeast, water and koji as well as rice.

The category of a sake is based on several aspects. The grade and style, as well as the amount of polishing the rice receives, all contribute to the quality of the sake. The label on the bottle will often have this information on it, in order to indicate the quality of that particular sake.


The Grades of Sake:

Junmai means that the sake is pure, and has no additional alcohol added to it. If the word “junmai” is not on the label, then you can be sure that some sort of additive has been used. Junmai is the purest sake grade.

Honjozo is sake that has a little brewer’s alcohol added to it. This is done to bring out the flavors. Honjozo is only produced in Japan.

The most basic, table wine quality, sake is Futsu-shu. Futsu-shu is produced with no regulations, and is usually served hot because the heat masks any impurities in it.


Sake Styles:

Apart from genshu, most sakes are bottled with 15% to 16% alcohol in relation to volume.

Full strength sakes – those that are usually bottled at 18% to 20% are called Genshu.

Aged sake is called Koshu.

Nama is a sake that needs to be keep refrigerated as it is unpasteurized.

The Nigori is unfiltered, compared to other styles, and as a result of this, has a cloudy appearance instead of the clear appearance of the others.

Rice Polishing in Sake:

The reason for polishing the rice in the process of making sake, is to remove the husk and the bran, along with a part of the germ. Since rice polishing is a factor in the quality of sake, there are specific categories which indicate the amount of polishing. The less the rice has been polished, the more flavor left in the rice, and the higher the quality of the sake. So, you’re looking for a low number for a high quality sake.

The lowest rate of rice polishing is 35% to 49%. This is Dainginjo – an ultra-premium sake.

The next level of rice polishing is 50% to 60%, and this is called Ginjo. It’s considered a premium.

Sake made from rice polished to at least 65% is called Tokubetsu Junmai.

Junmai is traditionally made from rice polished to 70%. However, the producer only has to mention the percentage on the label.

The Best Way to Store Sake:

Because sake is not a wine, and does not improve with age, it should not be stored in the same way wine is stored. There are a few things you can do in order to retain the freshness of your sake.

There should be a bottling date on the label. It is best when consumed as close to that date as possible.

Since Nama sake is not pasteurized, it must be kept in the refrigerator.

Bottles that have not yet been opened are best kept refrigerated, and consumed within 16 months. However, you could keep them in a wine chiller if you plan on opening them within a week.

Once opened, it must be kept closed and refrigerated, and consumed within about two weeks.

The Way to Drink Sake:

The best way to drink sake will depend on its grade. Premium grade sakes should be chilled, while it’s best to serve lower grades, for example, futsu-shu, warm. Sake drinking can be enhanced by using the correct cups and carafe. These are available in sets, and are usually heat-proof. These are particularly good for hosting. When you are drinking sake with others, rather than alone, you should never pour your own sake. You should pour for the person next to you, and allow them to pour yours.