Updated at: 02-08-2023 - By: John Lau

Curious about the traditional Japanese drink that’s taken the world by storm?

Sake, often referred to as rice wine, is an intriguing and complex beverage with a history dating back thousands of years.

In this article, we’ll demystify sake — from its basic ingredients to its meticulous brewing process, various types, and serving etiquette.

Ready for a deep dive into the fascinating universe of this unique Japanese origin drink? Let’s begin!

The Basics of Sake

What Is Sake (1)

Sake is a Japanese alcohol made from fermented rice that has been polished to remove the bran, resulting in a clean and smooth flavor profile.

Ingredients and brewing process

The heart of Sake, often referred to as Japanese rice wine, lies in its select ingredients and intricate brewing process. The primary components of this traditional beverage are four natural elements: meticulously polished ricedistinctive yeast strains, a unique mold called koji, and water.

The careful selection of these components plays a vital role in defining the flavor profile and quality of the final product.

The brewing process begins with washing and soaking the polished rice grains to optimize their moisture content. This step is vital for fermenting out all sugars from the grain during later stages.

Next comes steaming—not boiling—which keeps the grain intact while making it pliable for enzyme activity in subsequent steps.

Then enters Koji mold; grown on a portion of steamed rice grains over two days under controlled temperature conditions—it works by breaking down starch molecules into fermentable sugars.

Lastly, yeast is introduced that feeds on these sugar compounds to produce alcohol alongside some CO2 and heat—a fermentation method similar to beer production rather than wine fermentation even though sake is widely regarded as “rice wine”.

Brewing sake isn’t just an art; it’s also science requiring precision at every step—captivating enough reason why it has been deeply ingrained into Japanese culture for centuries!

Rice polishing ratio

The rice polishing ratio plays a significant role in the production of sake. It refers to the percentage of the outer layers of the rice grain that is polished away before fermentation. The more polished the rice, the higher quality and more refined the sake will be.

A lower rice polishing ratio means that a larger portion of the outer layers, which contain impurities and proteins, are removed, resulting in a cleaner and smoother taste.

In general, premium sakes have a higher rice polishing ratio, with some even reaching as low as 35% or less.

This meticulous process ensures that only the purest part of each grain is used in creating this beloved Japanese beverage.

Sake tasting notes

When it comes to sake tasting, there are a few key factors to keep in mind.

Firstly, the aroma of sake can vary greatly depending on the type and brewing process. Some sakes have floral notes, while others may have hints of melon or rice.

Secondly, the taste of sake can range from dry and crisp to rich and full-bodied. The level of acidity and sweetness also play a role in determining the flavor profile.

Lastly, the texture or mouthfeel of sake is another important aspect to consider.

Sake can be smooth and silky or slightly textured with a pleasant lingering finish.

One interesting thing about sake tasting is that it often improves as you allow it to warm up slightly in your glass.

This allows for more complex flavors and aromas to develop. Additionally, don’t be afraid to experiment with different temperature ranges when serving sake – some types are best enjoyed cold while others benefit from being gently warmed.

Different Types of Sake


What Is Sake (2)

Junmai is one of the main types of sake that you’ll come across. It is a pure rice wine made without any additives like sugar or alcohol.

Junmai has a rich, full-bodied flavor and tends to be on the drier side, making it an excellent choice for those who enjoy bold and complex flavors.

This type of sake is often enjoyed at room temperature or slightly chilled, allowing its distinctive taste to shine through.

Whether sipping it on its own or pairing it with your favorite dishes, Junmai sake will introduce you to the wonderful world of Japanese rice wine in all its glory – authentic, rustic, and utterly delicious.


Daiginjo is a type of sake that is highly regarded for its premium quality and exquisite taste. It is made using rice that has been polished to at least 50% or even further, resulting in a smooth and refined flavor profile.

This painstaking process of rice polishing removes impurities, allowing the flavors of the sake to shine through.

Daiginjo is often described as fragrant, fruity, and full-bodied with a delicate sweetness.

With an alcohol content ranging from 15-20%, it strikes a perfect balance between being light enough to enjoy on its own and bold enough to enhance any meal.

Whether you’re new to exploring sake or already have a refined palate, daiginjo offers a unique experience that showcases the skillful craftsmanship behind this traditional Japanese beverage.


What Is Sake (3)

Nigori is a unique type of sake that stands out due to its cloudy appearance and creamy texture. Unlike other sakes, Nigori is unfiltered, meaning it retains some rice solids after the fermentation process.

This gives it a distinctive flavor profile with hints of sweetness and a slightly chewy mouthfeel. Nigori can vary in styles, ranging from dry to sweet, making it suitable for different taste preferences.

It’s best served chilled or on ice and pairs well with spicy foods or desserts.

Sparkling sake

Sparkling sake is a refreshing and effervescent variation of this traditional Japanese rice wine. Just like sparkling wine, it undergoes a secondary fermentation process that creates the bubbles.

It is often enjoyed as an apéritif or alongside desserts due to its light and fruity flavors. Sparkling sake can be made using various types of rice, resulting in different taste profiles ranging from crisp and dry to sweeter and more floral.

With its delicate bubbles dancing on your palate, this elegant drink adds a touch of sophistication to any occasion without being overly heavy or strong.

So why not raise a glass of sparkling sake and toast to trying something new? Cheers!


What Is Sake (4)

Yamahai is a traditional style of sake characterized by its bold and robust flavors. Unlike other types of sake, which use commercial yeast during the fermentation process, Yamahai relies on natural airborne lactobacilli to kickstart fermentation.

This ancient method results in a more complex taste profile with hints of earthiness and acidity. Brewing Yamahai requires extra time and attention, as the process involves longer fermentation periods and careful temperature control.

The end result is a rich and full-bodied sake that pairs well with hearty dishes like grilled meats or stews.

So if you’re looking for something adventurous to try, give Yamahai a sip and experience the unique flavors it has to offer.

How to Drink and Serve Sake

Temperature and glassware

To enjoy sake to its fullest, it’s important to consider the temperature at which it is served and the appropriate glassware. Unlike wine, sake can be enjoyed at a range of temperatures, each offering a unique flavor profile.

Sake can be served cold, known as “hiya” or “reishu,” which brings out fruity and floral notes. It can also be enjoyed at room temperature, called “jouon” or “nurukan,” allowing for a balance of flavors.

For those seeking a warm and comforting experience, hot sake or “atsukan” is an option, emphasizing richer and earthy flavors.

When it comes to glassware selection for enjoying sake, there are different options available depending on personal preference and the type of sake being served.

The most common choice is the ochoko cup – small ceramic cups that allow for sipping and experiencing the aroma up close.

Additionally, larger vessels like choko glasses or wine glasses are suitable for enhancing aromatic expressions in premium daiginjo sakes.

Sake pairing with food

Sake pairing with food can enhance your dining experience and bring out the flavors of both the food and the sake.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. Sushi and Sashimi: The delicate flavors of sushi and sashimi are complemented by crisp and dry sake varieties like Junmai or Daiginjo.
  2. Tempura: The light and crispy texture of tempura is balanced by a slightly sweet and fruity sake, such as Nigori or Sparkling sake.
  3. Grilled Meats: Hearty grilled meats like yakitori or steak pair well with medium-bodied sake like Yamahai, which has a rich umami flavor.
  4. Seafood: Fresh seafood dishes like grilled fish or seafood salad go hand in hand with clean and refreshing Junmai or Ginjo sakes.
  5. Cheese: Contrary to popular belief, sake can be paired with cheese. Soft cheeses like brie or camembert match well with fruitier sakes, while harder cheeses like cheddar work nicely with dry sakes.
  6. Spicy Foods: Spicy dishes benefit from a slightly sweet sake to cool down the heat, so try pairing them with Nigori or Sparkling sake.
  7. Desserts: Sake can also be enjoyed with desserts! Light desserts like fruit tarts pair well with dry sakes, while creamy desserts like cheesecake are complemented by sweeter sakes like Nigori.

Sake serving etiquette

Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  1. Pouring: When pouring sake, hold the bottle with both hands and pour it for others before filling your own glass. This gesture shows respect and hospitality.
  2. Temperature: Sake can be enjoyed at various temperatures, which enhances different flavors and aromas. Serve chilled sake in a tokkuri (a small ceramic flask) placed in a bowl filled with ice water. Warmed sake can be served in small ceramic cups known as ochoko placed in a larger ceramic vessel called a choko.
  3. GlasswareTraditional glassware for serving sake includes small ceramic cups or delicate glassware specifically designed for enhancing the aroma and taste of sake.
  4. Sipping: Sip the sake slowly rather than gulping it down quickly. Take your time to savor its complex flavors and enjoy the moment.
  5. Pairing Suggestions: Consider pairing different types of sake with appropriate food to enhance both the flavors of the food and sake itself. For example, lighter sakes pair well with delicate dishes like sushi or sashimi, while full-bodied sakes complement richer dishes like grilled meats or stews.
  6. Proper Toasting: When making a toast, it is customary to say “Kanpai!” which means “Cheers” in Japanese. Make eye contact with others while clinking glasses as a sign of respect.
  7. Refilling Others’ Cups: If you notice someone’s cup is empty, it is polite to offer them a refill by pouring more sake into their glass before refilling your own.
  8. Proper Handling: Avoid touching the rim or inside of someone else’s cup when pouring sake as it may be seen as unclean or disrespectful.


In conclusion, sake is a unique and fascinating alcoholic beverage that has its roots in Japanese culture. Made from fermented rice and crafted through an intricate brewing process, sake offers a wide range of flavors and styles to explore.

Whether enjoyed on its own or paired with food, sake provides a delightful experience for those looking to expand their palate and discover the rich traditions behind this Japanese rice wine.

So next time you’re in search of something new to try, raise a glass of sake and immerse yourself in the world of this exceptional drink.