Sake 101
By Asiaeuro Wines & Spirits Nov. 19, 2020

Navigating the world of sake.

What is sake?

You will get two different answers to this question, depending on where you ask it.

We’ll start with the rest of the world except Japan. In English, “sake” refers to the traditional alcoholic beverage from Japan that is made from fermented rice.

But ask for “sake” in Japan and you may be met with a quizzical look. Because in Japanese, “sake” refers to all alcoholic drinks in general, including beer, wine, shochu, and the beverage we call “sake” in English.

So, what do the Japanese call “sake”? In Japanese, the word for what the rest of the world refers to as sake is nihonshu, which translates as “Japanese alcohol”. So, if you ask for nihonshu at an izakaya or bar, you will be greeted with a smile.

Language lesson aside, we will be referring to this wonderful tipple as sake to keep things simple.

What is its history?

Similar to other traditional items, sake (pronounced “sah-kay”) has a long and colourful history. The origins of sake can be traced to China as far back as 4,000 BC. Experts believe the drink was established in Japan about 2,500 years ago when rice culture became popular.

After Japan introduced wet rice cultivation around 300 BC, the Japanese began to produce the drink in mass quantities.

At the earliest days, local people made sake only by chewing rice and spitting it in a pot, and then let time ferment it. The saliva’s enzymes would trigger fermentation.

This “saliva process” did not last long, as people discovered koji, a filamentous mushroom (or “mould”) used to ferment the rice. This new method spread widely throughout Japan during the 8th century, founding the basis of contemporary sake brewing. During that period, sake was only produced at the imperial court, a privileged drink for the emperor.

Around the 10th century, temples and shrines began to brew sake. For centuries afterward, these were the primary distilleries of sake in Japan, and sake became a part of the religious ceremonies and festivals in Japan.

During the Meiji Restoration – from 1868 to 1912 - sake producing became a viable option for commoners. It was a time when anyone with the financial resources could open their own distillery. While sake production boomed across Japan, the government increased the taxes on the drink, forcing breweries to close down. However, some breweries that survived this era are still operating today.

Now, sake is the national beverage of Japan.

In the beginning, sake was only made from water and rice. However, this traditional “pure sake” evolved during World War II because of rice shortages. To maintain their volume, brewers added pure alcohol and glucose to the traditional drink. Thus, a new technique was born. Today, more than half of the sake produced is still made this way.

Through the decades, sake has become more and more popular, not only among the Japanese but also in Europe and the United States of America. The drink is now synonymous with Japanese culture and tradition.

How is sake made?

Sake is brewed more like a beer, with the starch from the rice converted into sugars and fermented into alcohol.

However, while beer is brewed in two steps, sake is created in a single step. With sake, the fermentation conversion from starch to sugar and alcohol occurs at the same time, while with beer, the starch turns to sugar and then ferments into alcohol.

On paper, making sake seems quite simple, but the process is actually rather unique and intricate. For instance, one of the first steps to producing sake is to ‘polish’ the rice.

This actually happens before the fermentation. It involves each rice kernel being ‘polished’, which is removing the outer layer of each rice grain until only its starchy core remains. For this process, the rule of thumb is that the more rice has been polished, the higher the classification level.

Once the wine is filtered in the final step, the liquid will come out as a slightly discoloured white.

Although the process is an important part of producing refined sake, an equally important factor is the ingredients used. The foundation of a quality tasting sake starts with premium and pure rice (also known as “Junmai-shu” in Japanese), clean water, koji mould, and yeast. This type of sake is called pure rice sake.

The secret of good sake also depends on the skills of the toji (chief sake maker).

When additives such as sugar and alcohol are added to the sake, it becomes fortified sake (Aruten-shu). The reason for adding alcohol is to create a light, dry and crisp character instead of increasing the alcohol yield.

Whilst “Junmai” may sound as though it’s the premium alternative, this is not always the case as it does depend on the individual’s palette.

So, as you can see, many small intricate details come together to create the perfect bottle of sake, and we will be telling you more about the making of sake in our next article.

What is sake’s ABV?

Most sake has a higher ABV (alcohol by volume) than most other fermented drinks like beer or wine but lower than most distilled spirits.

Beer usually contains an ABV of around 3%-9%, while wine typically has an ABV of 9%-16%. Undiluted sake (Genshu), however, has an ABV of about 18%-20%.

Conventional sake is diluted with water before bottling, it contains an ABV of around 15%.

Lower-alcohol sake is gaining in popularity. Of these, sparkling sake is particularly trendy. Like sparkling wine, sparkling sake is fun and easy to drink, especially for newbies.

Asiaeuro’s Saito Yuzu Hikari, which is made in Kyoto, is refreshing sparkling sake with citrus flavour, made in Kyoto.

The semi-sweet and sour flavour of citrus has a clean finish. It can be matched with fried foods and a variety of dishes of strong taste.

You can also enjoy it as an aperitif and like “RTD” (ready to drink) beverages.

Best of all, a 300ml bottle of the delicious tipple with an ABV of 7% is a best buy at only RM41! Shop now at AE Club.