19th century
sake seller
Sake, the national drink of Japan, is a clear refined rice wine with an alcohol content of about 13 percent to 18 percent, (30 proof to 36 proof), which makes it stronger than wine. It is brewed like beer and not distilled like vodka and is commonly served hot. It goes well with Japanese cuisine. [Source: Japan Sake Brewers Association:]

Sake (pronounced SA-keh, not SAH-kee) is so central to life in Japan that the word sake is also used to describe all alcoholic drinks. Sake is often used in cooking. It enhances the taste and softens the strong odor of meat and seafood and is used to flavor soups, sauces, and boiled foods. Some people mix it with an egg and drink it as a cold remedy. Customers getting a haircut are sometimes offered sake.

Beer brewing and sake brewing are somewhat similar. Both use yeast to convert starch (rice or barley) into sugar and then into carbon dioxide and alcohol. With beer, barely is converted into sugar through malting. The huskless rice used in sake can not be malted so a mold called “koji” is added. With sake the conversion from starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol takes place simultaneously in the same tank, with beer these steps are done separately.

Websites and Resources


Book: “ Insiders Guide to Sake “ by Briton Philip Harper, the only foreign-born toji, or sake master. Good Websites and Sources: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Sake Sommelier Association ; History of Sake on Sake ; Visit to a Sake Brewery ; World of Japanese Sake ; John Gauntner’s eSake ; Kiku-Masamune ; John Gauntner’s Sake World sake-world ; Sake Making Photos

Sake Tasting in Japan Google "sake tours Japan" and some places turn up. Sake Breweries Around Tokyo Sake tasting tours are offered in sake-making areas. Sake breweries around Tokyo that offer tours on a reservation basis include: 1) Tsuchiya Brewery in Komae (10 minute walk from Odakyu Kitami Station, tel.03-3489-4752); 2) Ishikawa Brewery in Fussa (15 minute walk from JR Haijimi Station, tel. 042-553-0100), with restaurants, a garden and sake museum; 3) Tamura Brewery in Fussa (15 minute walk from JR Fussa Station, tel. 042-551-0003); 4) Watanabe Brewery in Musashi-Murayama (10 minutes by bus from Kamikitadai Station on Tama Monorail, tel. 0425-62-3131); 5) Nishioka Brewery in Hachioji (15 minute walk from JR Nishi-Hachioji Station, tel. 0426-25-0052); 6) Nakamura Brewery in Akiruno (15 minute walk from JR Akigawa Station, tel. 0425-58-0516); 7) Toshimaya Brewery in Higshi-Murayama (10 minute walk from Higshi-Murayama Station on the Seibu-Shinjuku Line, tel. 0423-91-0601). 8) Ozawa Brewery in One (near JR Sawai Station, tel. 0428-78-8215), with restaurants, gardens and a sake-tasting bar. Website: Japan Times article

Gekkeikan Sake Brewery Tour (in Fushimi near Kyoto) is sponsored by the world's leading producer of sake at old traditionally warehouse. The tours are in Japanese. There are 37 sake breweries in the Fushimi area. Most Gekkeikan sake is made at a large modern facility on Osaka. Website: Gekkeikan Gekkeikan . The Nada district of Kobe is perhaps Japan's most famous sake production area. Nine sake breweries offer tours The one at Shushinkan is recommended. They have an introductory video in English and serve a seven-dish lunch with aperitif made of the local sake for only $11. The tour includes a visit to the cedar-lined room used to ferment the rice. Nishinomiya is another famous sake-brewing district. The water there comes from a famous aquifer. Niigata Prefecture is known for producing Japan's best rice and sake. Aizu-Wakamatsu

Love of Sake in Japan

Explaining what motivated him to become the only foreign-born toji, or sake master, Oxford-educated Philip Harper, wrote, “How on earth do you make a drink with the fragrance of fruit from rice? My curiosity was piqued and my palate seduced: I was hooked.” As for drinking it on a cold winter night he said, “You get home and you’re still cold. Drinking a few flasks of hot sake is like getting into a hot bath when you’re achy and tired. It’s heaven on Earth.” [Source: Los Angeles Times]

The James Bond novel “You Only Live Twice” was set in Japan. In the book Bond goes on a sake bender, consuming 35 cups of the drink, more than he consumed of any other drink in the whole Bond series. His record for vodka martinis, his signature drink, was 18.

Sake comes in a variety of flavors. Wine critic Eric Asimov wrote in the New York Times, “Some sakes are smooth and pure, almost crystalline in the mouth, while others are rich and fruity, tasting subtly like peaches or pears. Textures can range from delicate and lacy to fatty and oily. Sakes can offer the unexpected, too, like a sweet, sparkling sake reminiscent of moscato d’Asti, or an aged sake that has turned savory almost salty.”

Early History of Sake

18th century sake drinkers
and courtesan
The Japanese began producing sake sometime after the introduction of wet rice cultivation in the 3rd century B.C. The first written record of sake drinking in Japan dates from about 300 A.D. By the 7th century, there were standardized production methods used by the imperial palace in Nara. Around the 10th century cultured rather naturally occurring fermenting agents were used. According to “The oldest written records about Japanese sake are found in third-century Chinese history books. These state that the Japanese have a taste for sake and are in the habit of gathering to drink sake when mourning the dead. There are several stories about sake, some mythical, in the historical records compiled by the imperial court in the eighth century. In the so-called Fudoki, which record the history and produce of the provinces in this era, there is reference to sake made using mold, providing insights into how sake made with rice and koji was produced in those days. The tenth century legal book entitled Engishiki records details of ancient sake-making methods. At that time, sake was produced mainly at the imperial court, either to be drunk by the emperor or for ceremonial use. [Source: ]

The character for sake is said to have come from a Chinese pictogram of a jar. There are several theories regarding the origin of the word “sake.” The first holds that it comes from the root “sakaeru”, which means to prosper. The second offers that it comes from “sakae-no-ki”, a reference to a Shinto ritual in which sake was offered. The third believes it comes from “sakeru”, which means "avoid" as in avoiding colds, a reference possibly to sake's medicinal; powers. In the old days, sake was known as “kushi”.

In ancient Japan, sake production was confined primarily to the Imperial court and to large temples and shrines, which explains why sake is often associated with religious rituals and festivals. Even today, sake is served at traditional rituals such as wedding ceremonies and New Years blessings. It is associated with purification. The technique to make pure rice sake were established in the late Edo period (1603-1863).

In the 12th to 15th centuries, sake came to be brewed at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and the techniques of sake brewing in use today were largely developed during this period. This was when brewers started using lactic acid fermentation, making shubo (seed mash) used to grow yeast, relying on lactic acid to inhibit microbial contamination, and then adding koji, water and steamed rice in mashing stages to the shubo. Hitherto, brewers had used polished rice only for koji production, otherwise using unpolished rice to make sake. During this period, however, they started producing morohaku sake, or sake made using polished rice both for the koji rice and the steamed rice added to the mash. The diaries of Buddhist priests in the 15th and 16th centuries record the use of hi-ire (pasteurization) with morohaku sake. Along with these advances in brewing technology, innovations in woodworking technology enabled construction of large 1,500 liter vats, facilitating mass production of sake. This led to the full-fledged production of sake by specialists not affiliated with temples or shrines in the 16th century (known as the Muromachi period). [Source: ]

In the 17th century, during the early Edo Period, the morohaku produced near Osaka in Itami (now Itami City in Hyogo Prefecture) and Ikeda (now in Osaka Prefecture) found its way into the three major cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). It became especially popular in Edo, where it was called kudarizake. Production of kudarizake reached 38,000 kiloliters at the beginning of the 18th century. This is equivalent to annual per-capita consumption of 54 liters among the citizens of Edo, including the samurai. Large amounts of sake were packed in casks and transported by sailboat. At the beginning of the 19th century, vessels transporting sake raced each other to see which could enter Edo port the quickest. Reportedly, they made the journey from the Kobe area to Tokyo in just three to four days, compared to the usual 10 to 30 days in those days. Eighteenth century sake production involved using about the same amount of polished rice (1.3--2.3 tons) per batch as now and the mashing process was practically the same three-stage mashing process currently used. However, the ratio of added water to polished rice was only around half. This suggests that the people of that era preferred heavy, sweet sake with a high viscosity. The records of the period also indicate that wood ash was added to the moromi to reduce the acidity before filtering and also refer to the addition of spirits made by distilling sakekasu, which corresponds to the current practice of adding alcohol. The amount of spirits added was equivalent to around 10 percent of the weight of rice, resulting in sake with a high alcohol content that was resistant to spoiling.

Sake drinking has traditionally had different association with different times of the year. In the winters it was savored while watching the snow fall, a custom described in “The Tale of Genji”. In the spring it was drunk while enjoying cherry blossoms. In the rainy season it was consumed to wash away bad luck accumulated in the first part of the year. During the summer it was drunk to ward off the heat and enjoy the full moon. In Tokyo people enjoyed drinking sake while taking boat rides on the Sumidagawa River. For a long time people referred to sake as the drink of the gods. Kabuki actors acted differently depending on whether they drink hot or cold saki and whether it is drunk from a tea cup or sake cup.

Sake in the 19th and 20th Century

The start of the 19th century saw the center of sake production shift from Itami, Ikeda and nearby areas to Nadagogo. (Nadagogo refers to the five areas covered by modern-day Nishinomiya and Kobe cities in Hyogo Prefecture.) The techniques used for making Nada sake featured the use of so-called miyamizu (water obtained in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture), which was discovered around 1850, waterwheel milling and the concentration of sake brewing in the colder part of the year. Miyamizu contains large amounts of phosphates and potassium, which promote the proliferation of koji-fungi and yeast, and strengthen moromi fermentation. The shift from foot treadles to waterwheels for rice milling not only increased productivity, but boosted quality by increasing the level of milling (i.e., lowering the seimai-buai). At the same time, the concentration of sake production in the winter, when there is less risk of bacterial contamination, facilitated stable production of high-quality sake. Mashing recipes came to resemble those used in modern sake brewing and Nada flourished as the center of Japanese sake brewing, a status it retains to this day.

According to From around the middle of the 19th century, the arrival in Japan of European scholars heralded the start of scientific research on sake. The German Oskar Korschelt, who landed in Japan in 1868, and the Briton Robert William Atkinson wrote reports expressing amazement at the fact that pasteurization had been practiced by sake brewers in Japan since early times using techniques similar to Pasteur’s low-temperature pasteurization. In 1904, the national institute (now the National Research Institute of Brewing) was established and made an important contribution to the development of sake brewing in subsequent years. Notably, the invention in 1909 of yamahaimoto, an improved version of the kimoto style, and sokujomoto, which utilizes lactic acid, contributed to the stabilization and streamlining of sake production, with the result that sokujomoto is now the most widely used method of producing shubo. Quality appraisal programs were initiated with the aim of raising the level of brewing technology in 1911, the first national competition (now Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyo-kai, National New Sake Awards) was held, an institution that continues to this day. [Source: ]

Subsequent developments affecting brewing technology included breakthroughs in understanding the science of fermentation, the scientific use of microorganisms, the advent of power-driven rice-milling machines, a shift from wooden vats to enamel tanks, and the bottling of sake for shipment. The period during World War II and the immediate postwar period saw bold changes in production methods, such as the practice of adding alcohol to sake. A wave of modernization in production processes in the 1960s and the introduction of machinery resulted in further streamlining.

In 1920s there were 10,000 sake breweries in Japan. Most of them were local. During World War II there were rice shortages and many breweries were forced to close or merge. New production methods were adopted to deal with the rice shortages. Pure alcohol was added and other thing were thrown in to make it taste better. Before then sake was made only with rice. Quality suffered. Alcohol continued to be added even when Japan enjoyed bountiful harvest of rice because large volumes could be produced ,more cheaply with added alcohol.

More recent trends affecting sake include the notion of “local production for local consumption,” as regional areas take another look at the skills and assets they have to offer, leading to the development of new varieties of sake rice and unique types of sake yeast used in fermentation

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, sake was becoming more popular overseas but was dropping in popularity at home. Abroad it was being used to make fashionable cocktails. At home sake was becoming associated mostly with old people. Sake categories have been added to the International Wine Challenge, the world’s largest wine contest. A sake made by Tatsushi Yanagi was the first grand winner of the sake categories at the International Wine Challenge, the world’s largest wine contest, in London in September 2007. Golden yellow in color, it was judged best of 227 rice wines. Yanagi is the 17th head of Kikuhime & Co., a sake brewery in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture.

Sake Rice and Water

The main ingredients for sake are rice and water. In many sakes rice and water are the only ingredients. Only the finest rice and clear stream water, mostly from highland valleys, are used. The rice, called “sakamai”, is different from the rice consumed as food. It is more expensive, has softer grains, and has more starch in the center of the grain. It grows only in certain places and requires complex cultivation techniques.

The best sakes are made with grains of rice milled down to 30 percent of their original size. Sake rice is larger than eating rice and contains more starch and less protein and fat which have a negative impact on sake flavor. The best starches are at the center of the grain and milling and polishing are required to separate them from the protein, fats and less desirable starch.

Water quality is crucial because the mineral content f the water affects the taste. Semi-hard water is most suitable for sake production due to its lower iron and manganese content. Finished sake has an alcohol content of around 20 percent but is usually watered down to around 16 percent.

Sake Making

Sake is made by steaming non-glutinous and glutinous rice together, then drying it, mixing it and boiling it and mixing it with water and several kinds of yeast and letting the mixture ferment.

The first step in making sake is milling and polishing the rice, which removes the bitter-tasting outer shell and successive outer layers from the grains. The more it is polished, the higher the grade of the sake. Many premium sakes used famed Yamada nishiki rice and then polish it so that only 30 percent remains. After polishing the rice is washed and soaked in giant tanks, and poured into vats for steaming.

Sake breweries are called kura. They are overseen by sake masters called “toji”. One sake master told the Japan Times, "It takes 10 years to get an idea what's going on, and 20 years before you really grasp it." Factors that influence the taste of sake include 1) climate and humidity of the region where the yeast and malted rice come from, 2) how the yeast, rice and water (all of which differ year to year) interact.

The brewing process usually begins in November, not long after the rice is harvested. Fermentation (the “shikomi” process) is performed from late autumn through winter until early spring, followed by parallel fermentation. Usually, the sake is then pasturized and placed in storage tanks in a cool sake storehouse to age through the summer and reach maturity and be ready to drink in the autumn, a year after the process began, a team when delicacies are collected from farms, mountains and seas to be best appreciated with a cup of sake to go along with them.

Sake is made in the winter time because that is the season that occurs after the rice is harvested and also because cool temperatures control fermentation and discourage taste-spoiling bacteria.

Sake Fermentation

Although sake is defined as a brewed alcoholic beverage, the brewing process is more complex that employed for beer and wine. In wine production, crushed grapes ferment naturally after yeast is added. In beer production, crushed malt ferment naturally after yeast and hot water are added. Sake production is different: rice used to make sake does not ferment with the addition of yeast alone.

The fermentation process of sake can take three or four times longer than that of wine. It produces a wide variety of amino acids that give sake a balanced, rounded taste and fresh flavor. Sake ferments naturally to about 20 percent alcohol.

Sake production begins with introduction of microbes called “koji” that break down the rice starch into glucose in a process known as saccharification. Next, sake yeast is added, and fermentation begins. This process, in which saccharification and fermentation takes place at the same time, is called multiple-parallel fermentation., and is said to be the most difficult brewing technique in the world. In other brewed beverages they takes place separately.

Properly manipulating the koji is regarded as the secret to making good sake. Koji is a mold that grows on rice that has been steamed. Over time it breaks down the starch to make fermentable sugars, which are in turn are converted into alcohol by yeast.

The koji looks like green tea and is similar to the mold use to make blue cheese. Soy sauce and miso are made using similar microbes. When multiple-parallel fermentation take place the vat has to uncovered to allow gases to escape. Because the vats are open, great attention has to be paid to sanitary conditions to keep bacteria from entering the open vats. The koji is grown in hot and humid conditions in a cedar paneled room. Getting the temperature and timing just right for koji production is one most difficult and important aspects of sake making.

Sake Production

sake barrels
After rice is steamed some of it is inoculated with koji. In a small vat more rice and water is added over time. For about two weeks the yeast is allowed to grow. The mixture is then placed in a large vat and over four days more rice, water and koji is added or create a large tank of white mash. This is allowed to sit for 18 to 36 days.

In a large room huge vats hold rice mash in various stages of fermentation and cooling. Monitoring the temperature is important. In the old days this was done by sticking a finger in the vat. Now there are sensitive thermometers. Even so instead of barometers and hydrometers many brewers relies on their senses.

One important element of sake making that is still done with the senses is checking the foam that accumulates on the top of the mash. The foam changes its appearance, reflecting what is occurring in the fermentation process. Over the centuries names were given to the different foams and sake masters learned how to interpret their meaning and make changes.

Controlled the complex sake brewing process requires intuition and technical know-how. For this reason, every sake brewery has its own brew master, or toji. The toji overseas not only the sake brewing process, but also the activities of his brewing team. Most toji are men. They often live at the brewing site. In the old days women were not even allowed to approach sake vast because they were considered impure (because of menstruation and superstitions).

Brewery-owners have traditionally not been involved in sake making, leaving that for the brew master and his crew. During the sake-making season from October to March the chores are endless as batches have to checked several times in the middle of the night and machines requiring endless cleaning to keep impurities out. Workers often stay at the brewery overnight and don’t see their families for days. It is said that team and harmony are essential, with the absence f either detectable in the taste of the sake.

Much of the work is now automated and monitored by computers, partly to save costs. Improved milling has given sake a more fragrant taste. Charcoal filtering has made it more refined. Some of the machines have whirling spikes that often cause injury. Many toji shun automation and computers, Some even sleep by their brews to monitor its progress. One toji told the New York Times, “My secret weapon is my senses. That’s the most important thing.”

Sake Pressing, Storage and Aging

more sake barrels
After the fermentation process is finished the clear sake is removed from the white slurry of rice solids through "pressing." These days the pressing is usually done by accordion-like machines that forces that force the slurry through mesh panels. After pressing most sakes are filtered in charcoal to enhance the taste and remove small particles.

In the old days all sake was brewed and stored in cedar (“sugi”) tanks. Now most is brewed in enamel-covered stainless steel tanks that were first introduced in 1923. These days you rarely see wooden tanks anymore. This is because the taste and scent of the wood tended to overpower the taste of the sake.

Most sake is not aged for long period of time; it is aged about six months to 18 months. Some are hardly aged at all and ready to drink not long after the brewing season ends in the spring. These are usually labeled "just pressed" or "new sake." Some sake is pasteurized. Some isn't. Pasteurization means gently heating the sake, which kills harmful bacteria but also deactivates enzymes than could alter the flavor. Non pasteurized sakes generally have a fresh, zesty taste.

The arrival of the first sake of the season is marked by the hanging of “sugidama” (globes of Japanese cedar leaves) from the front of sake pubs and sake shops. Japanese cedar (“sugi” trees) are significant in the Shinto religion. In the old days the storage tanks were made of sugi wood and it was said that sake was ready from drinking when the green needles turned brown.

There are good years and bad years for rice as there are with grapes but good sake brewers can generally make corrective measures for bad years so the year of a sake is not really that important. The release date is usually printed in the label, usually in the spring.

Sake Drinking and Taste

Sake is traditionally consumed in a porcelain cup called a “sakazuki”, or Japanese cedar boxes called “masu”. These containers are small and hold only a couple of swallows. This means that sake drinkers are usually busy filling one another's cups. Sometimes salt is placed on the rims of masus. Many true saki drinkers don’t recommend using masu because they are awkward and add a wood taste to the sake. Wineglasses are better.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen wrote in Time: “Enjoying sake properly employs all the senses. First listen for a clear, springlike glug as it is poured. Next look for clarity, sheen and color in the cup. Then sniff the brew for bouquet and personality. Taste for all those things, and feel it swell going down.”

Fifteen degrees C is the recommended drinking temperature for most types of sake. Once a bottle has been opened it is good to drink it right away as oxygen will adversely affect the taste. Refrigeration is important. Avoid sake that is displayed on a liquor store shelf or has been transported without refrigeration. Thermoses are used to keep sake at the appropriate temperature at all times.

Cheap, bad sakes have a bad odor and a strong taste. They generally are made using cheap production methods and have a lot of additives. Good sake has good water, good rice, and is carefully produced.

Choosing the Right Cup for Sake Drinking

There are certain shapes and materials for cups that make them well-suited for Japanese sake, or nihonshu. A good cup can make sake taste better. "It's good to pick the right cup based on the sake's aroma. For example, choose a cool-colored glass for fruit-scented nihonshu," Koji Maruoka, a sake sommelier at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo , told the said as he put a small glass on the counter in Amanogawa, his nihonshu bar. The alcohol flowed into the glass with a satisfying glug, glug, glug. Holding the glass delicately, I immediately caught a refreshing aroma. "The look of the glass and the texture when you put it to your lips further improve the sake you're drinking," Maruoka said. [Source: Yukako Oishi, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 10, 2012]

Yukako Oishi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: If the sake has more depth and mellowness with wood or grain accents, find an earthenware ochoko (tiny cup) or more masculine cups like guinomi (large ochoko). The cup's diameter is another important aspect. Narrow cups with a cylindrical shape will help clear dry sake flow all the way down the throat smoothly and refreshingly. To drink richly flavored sake such as junmaishu (pure sake with no additional alcohol or sugar) and enjoy the taste of rice, pick a wide-mouthed cup. If you tilt the glass slightly to drink, sake pours from the cup's wide edge and spreads slowly throughout your mouth. "These cups help the flavor get picked up by all your taste buds," Maruoka said.

Choosing cups based on the color of sake is also fun. Light brown koshu (sake aged over a long time) or nigorizake (cloudy sake) are good with a dark pottery cup because it projects a vivid contrast of hues. Clear sake is usually good for a clear glass, but Maruoka said, "Enjoying a bit of a twist and choosing a colored cup can also be cool."

Maruoka said he sometimes chooses cups for his customers from a very different point of view. When a woman wearing a kimono visits, he serves her sake in an ochoko so she can drink elegantly and doesn't have to worry about the kimono's long sleeves brushing against the cup. For a customer who gets a bit tipsy, Maruoka switches to a more stable cup that is less likely to get knocked over. "What's most important is whether a person can drink comfortably from the cup. For people who always drink at yatai venders, for example, drinking from a normal glass instead of a stylish cup may make the sake taste better," he said.

Choosing the appropriate cup is a delicate and profound task. To check sake quality, brewers use white porcelain cylindrical ochoko with double blue circles on the bottom of the cup. The blue circles are called janome. When you pour sake into that ochoko, check the lines separating the blue and white. Experts check the clarity of sake based on whether the edges of the colors are clear or blurry. How the white and blue appear also indicates the color of sake. Double-circle janome ochoko are available at liquor stores. Using one will help you enjoy sake with your tongue, nose and eyes.

Kinds of Sake in Japan

There are four main classifications of sake: 1) “junmai”, a pure brew made with only rice and water and no additives: and 2) “jozo”, (“honjozo”) which has some additional alcohol; 3) “ginjo”, in which at least 40 percent of the grain is removed in milling; and 4) “daiginjo”, in which at least 50 percent of the grain is removed in milling.

The classifications are often mixed: 1) “Junmai ginjo” uses rice with at least 40 percent of the grain removed and uses nothing but rice in brewing. 2) “Junmai daiginjo” uses rice with at least 50 percent of the grain removed and uses nothing but rice in brewing. 3) “Honjozo ginjo” (“Ginjoshu”) uses rice with at least 40 percent of the grain removed and has additional alcohol added.4) “Honjozo daiginjo” (“dai-ginjoshum”) uses rice with at least 50 percent of the grain removed and has additional alcohol added.

The classifications are not necessarily a guide to quality. Jozo is regarded as ordinary light table sake but some like it best. It is light and easy to drink. Distilled alcohol is added to improve fragrance and lighten the flavor. Junmai has a deeper taste, is more acidic and is appreciated like wine. Ginjoshu has a delicate, and often fruity, floral and fragrant flavor. Daiginjo is more refined, and often fragrant. Junmaishu has a mild, unobtrusive bouquet and crisp flavor.

Other kinds of sake include “nigori”, cloudy, milky white sake lightly filtered by a course-textured cloth); “nama”, unrefined sake; new sake and regular clear sake. Clear sake is usually categorized in three grades: “tokkyu” (premium), “ikkyu” (first grade) and nikkyu. These are further divided into “karakuchi” (dry) and “amakuchi” (sweet). There also sparking sakes, unfiltered sakes, sakes flavored with wood and steamed rice with yeast (“doburoku”. Unfiltered sake have a creamy texture and a strong rice flavor. Brownish aged sake has the “balanced sweetness of a great dessert wine.”

“Genshu” has a higher alcohol content. It is pressed but not diluted with additional water. It has a deep, rich flavor and an alcohol content of 17 percent to 20 percent. “Namazake” is not heated or pasteurization after the final mash is pressed, It has a light, fresh flavor. “Koshu” (aged sake) is generally aged between two and five years and has a bouquet like sherry with a flavor profile embarking spices and nuts. “Taruzake” (cask sake) is aged in wooden casks and takes the flavor and the fragrance of the wood from which the barrel is made. “Savoring sake” is a sake version of champagne. All other types of sake fall under the category of “futsusu”.

In recent years, makgoeilli, a traditional Korean alcoholic drink made from rice and rice malt, has become popular with Japanese women who are attracted by its sweet taste, low alcohol content and purported health benefits. In 2009, 6,157 tons of the drink were imported from South Korea, up from 611 tons in 1999.

Hot and Cold Sake

The ideal temperature for drinking a particular sake depends on the brand and type of sake. Because the more expensive sakes are generally served chilled, hot sake these days is often equated with cheap sake. Warm sake is best served at Around 50 degrees C. The best temperature for chilled sake is 5 degrees C. Room temperature sake is best between 17 and 20 degrees C.

The traditional way to drink sake is to serve it warmed to a temperature between 38̊C and 55̊C depending on one's tastes, with about 50̊C the average. Hot sake is regarded as an autumn and summer time drink. Heated sake is known as “kanzake” or “okan”. “Atsukan” refers to very hot sake. It is often so hot that you don't taste anything. Sometimes sake is heated to mask its flaws. “Nurukan” refers to gently warmed sake.

Sake is also consumed cold. It can be chilled in a refrigerator or poured over ice. Sakes with a rich flavor or a light, smooth taste are better consumed chilled. Heating sake tends top mellow the taste.

Drinking Hot Sake

Warm sake is preferably sipped from tiny porcelain cups and poured from a porcelain decanter with no one ever serving themselves. It is usually heated in a small narrow-necked porcelain flask called a “tokkuri”. The tokkuri is placed in a saucepan of hot water, which in turn is placed over a gentle flame, and heated for about five minutes. If a tokkuri is nor available, another container will do. Narrow-necked serving vessels help keep in the heat. Some people put sake in their microwave oven. Make sure not to boil the sake. Special thermometers called okan meters are available.

It is said warmed sake provides both physical and psychological warmth in the winter and has traditionally been served with nabe hot pot dishes. Warm sake should be served at between 35 degrees C and 55 degrees C depending on the sake type. To prepare warm sake using the traditional “ yusen “ method a tokkuri flask containing sake is placed in hot water, The temperature of the water should be kept below the level of which alcohol begins evaporating. Considering an optimal method for heating sake, this method is recommended as it retains the sake flavors and bouquet. It also warms the flask, helping maintain the temperature of the sake inside. Unlike direct heating methods the sake is prevented from becoming dry due to overheating.

Using the microwave oven method the lip and neck of the tokkuri flask are wrapped snugly with aluminum foil. It is important that the foil sits flush around the flask and is not created to both minimize the risk of oven sparking and to ensure he entire bottle is warmed evenly. Otherwise, damage to one’s microwave oven may occur, and the sake in the neck of the tokkuri will become warmer than he rest of the sake.”

Some people drink hot sake on the rocks. To enjoy this method pour warmed sake into a glass filled with plenty of ice and savor the sensation as the ice begins to melt. This style lowers both the temperature of the sake and dilutes its alcohol content by adding roughly one part water for five parts sake, allowing drinkers to enjoy experience a mellower yet clear-tasting sake. Other people drink sake with a water chaser, which slows the pace of intoxication as water dilutes alcohol in the bloodstream.

Sake Brands and Sake Making Areas in Japan

Sakes come in a startling variety of kinds and brands and even long-time sake drinkers have a hard time choosing the best ones. When presented with shelves full of sake bottles inexperienced drinkers often have no clue which sake to chose.

Product names are often derived from cultural icons such as sumo wrestlers or ancient poets. The calligraphy labels on the bottles often look like works of art. Non-Japanese usually can’t make head or tails of the labels. Sakes sold in the United States sometimes have a back label written in English.

Most major breweries developed near good sources of water, such as Nada in Kobe and Fushima in Osaka, and good rice, such as in Niigata and Akita, and major distribution centers. A third of Japan’s sake is produced in the Kobe area. The Nada district is particularly famous for good sake.

Solidly-constructed sakes such as honjozo and some junmaishus and aged sakes with a heavy, earthy flavor are best consumed hot. Recommended brands include Kamoizumu Junmai Ginjo from Hiroshima, Urakasumu Honjozo and Bizen Sake bo Hitosuji from Okayama, Kariho from Akita, and Denshu from Aomori.

Sakes that taste good when warm include Gokyō from Yamaguchi, dry Tosatzuru from Kochi, rich Nishi no Seki from Oita and Shinkame Hikomago from Saitama.

Fragrant and delicate sakes such as Junmain, Ginjo and Daiginjor are best consumed cold. Heating diminishes the taste. Highly regarded sake include Nishinokei and Masumi from Nagano Prefecture. Good new sakes include Gekkeikan and hatsumago.

Sake Cocktails and Bars

Some restaurants and bars offer sake with blowfish fins floating in it and lemon-grass and green-tea flavored sake martinis. The blowfish fins are carefully dried and placed in the sake when it is piping hot, filling the room with an aroma reminiscent of the ocean. In some places crab shell, roasted char, and crab roe are added as flavoring. During the spring festivals people drink sake with cherry blossoms, irises and peach blossoms in it.

Among the sake concoctions said to have medicinal properties are sake with grated “tororo” (mountain potato), said to increase virility; sake with sugar and natto (fermented soy beans, said to make one grow taller; and sake with egg ans ginger juice, regarded as a treatment for colds. You can also get sakes with ground up bones, preserved insects and Chinese herbs. Pure sake has a number of health benefits and is said to combat aging and make the skin smother and fairer.

Sake bars became fashionably in Manhattan in the late 1990s. Some bars in Europe and the United States offer sake Margaritas, sake sours, sake cosmopolitans and saketinis. One bar in London serves something call a "Black Sea," made from sake, ground coriander and squid ink. Some sake bars in Japan offer oxygen therapy.

Decline of the Sake Industry in Japan

Japanese drink half the sake they did in the 1970s. About 870,000 kiloliters were drunk in 2003, down from a peak of 1.76 million kiloliters in 1973. Sake now has 9 percent share of the alcoholic drink market in Japan down from 17 percent in 1989.

These days more people consumer sochu t(940,000 kiloliters in 2003) than sake. Competition from heavily-advertised beer and beer-like drinks has caused consumption of sake has gone down. Many sake shops have been forced to close. Sons of sake brewers are choosing to be salarymen rather than brewers.

There are around 1,450 sake breweries in Japan (2008), down from 2,500 in 1990, 3,500 in 1970 and 4,000 in 1956 and 30,000 in the 1900s. The number is expected to fall to 600 by 2025. They produce over 10,000 brands of sake.

The declines are partly explained by the rising preference of Japanese for other kinds of alcoholic drinks and the association of sake with old people. Some people also blame the habit of young people drinking cheap foul-tasting sake when they are young and getting a bad impression of the drink and then switching to beer and wine and never coming back.

There is not much new talent coming down the pike in sake production. The average master brewer is 54.

Reviving the Sake Industry in Japan

It is ironic that this decline is occurring because sake breweries are now producing some th highest quality and best tasting sakes ever. To win back customers, brewers are trying to attract young women with fashionable marketed brands and low calorie and low alcohol sakes. Sake brewers are also promoting local sakes like beer micro breweries and producing premium sakes. Some breweries that have lost sales have increased profits by selling top of the line sakes.

Some brewers see there future abroad, marketing their products to European and American drinkers. Refrigerators, improved shipping logistics and an increased number of importers establishing business relations with Japanese brewers have helped deliver a better product the United States.

Sake sales in the United States have risen 12 percent a year over the past decade. Britain, South Korea, China and Canada are also importing it, with exports of sake from Japan rising 40 percent between 2002 and 2007. As of 2007, there were 600 registered sake labels in the United States from 400 breweries in Japan. Currently more sake is sold in the United States than French champagne.

Efforts by sake brewers and sochu makers to make inroads into China have been thwarted by Chinese firms registering the names of famous sake and sochu brands without the consent of the genuine Japanese companies and selling beverages under those names.

One sake distributors told Time magazine, “Sake is transitioning from the image of being cheap, hot and in a little carafe that get you hammered to one a fine wine, with a lot of complexity, flavor and craftsmanship.”

Other brewers are seeking cheaper materials and lower costs. One sake brewer built a $3 million brewery in Australia to take advantage of lower property and rice prices, which are as low as a tenth of those in Japan. In Japan, restaurants and bars have hired sake specialists that can recommend particular sakes to go with particular dishes.

Sake Makers Look to Boost U.S. Sales

In December 2012, Jiji Press reported: “Japanese sake breweries are making efforts to boost their overseas sales in the face of falling sake consumption at home, aiming to attract more consumers in the United States, partly aided by the popularity of Japanese cuisine among health-conscious people.

At a recent tasting event in New York, sake sommelier Chizuko Niikawa served sake to suit the tastes of participants. Some people took notes as she spoke about the beverage. At the request of sake makers aiming to expand U.S. sales, Niikawa is launching a sales campaign across the United States. "I want sake to penetrate the U.S. market as a culture of the world," she said. "Americans have started to acquire a taste for sake and enjoy it," said Kosuke Kuji, an executive of Nanbu Bijin, a brewer in Iwate Prefecture.

According to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, sake exports totaled 14,014 kiloliters in 2011, about double the level 10 years ago. Of the total, 4,071 kiloliters were shipped to the United States, the nation's largest sake export destination. The number of restaurants serving Japanese food in the United States surged to 14,000 in 2010 from 6,000 in 2000, growing almost in line with the increase in sake consumption, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.

Mio Kawada, an official at JETRO's office in New York, said sake consumption is expected to further increase. She added that she wants more Americans to understand that sake goes well with a variety of foods, such as French and Chinese cuisine. A large-scale sake promotion event is set to be held in New York in February.

New Sake Products

Some breweries are experimenting with new kinds of sake. Gekkeikan, for example, produces a low-alcohol, sparking sake sold in silver bottles. Sweet and sparking varieties in fancy bottles are aimed at women,

Scientists in Japan have made sake from yeast that spent 10 days in space aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. A sake company in Kochi spent $40,000 to have eight kinds of dry yeast and four kinds of wet yeast, each in a test tube with 2 grams of yeast. All 12 were taken ito space and returned safely. The jury is still out on the taste of the sake made with the yeast.

Some sake breweries are experimenting with adding new flavors using old wine barrels that give the sake a flavor with a slight hint of white wine intended mostly for overseas markets. Brewers are also marketing certain kinds of sake for certain kinds of women drinkers Those that like white Burgundy for example are being used to try Niigata-style sake because they both have clean tastes.

Sake Health Food and Cosmetics

In Ryonancho in Kagawa Prefecture. Sake brewers are using the same fermentation processes the use to make sake to make cosmetics, health food and other products. Some people add sake to their bath water to improve their circulation.

Sake is said to be good for your skin and master brewers have a reputation for having soft hands. An experiment at a sake brewery in Hyogo seems to bear this out. Eleven employees were asked to drink 270 millimeters of sake. The moisture content in their skin was measured after two hours and was found to have risen 30 percent. As a control the same individuals drank an non-sake alcoholics drink, which were found to have no affect on moisture content. Many sake breweries are utilizing this discover in sake-based skin moisturizers and cosmetics,

Cosmetic companies use koji as an ingredient is skin preparations. It reportedly helps whiten the skin by controlling the skin pigment melanin. It also said to slow the effects of aging and promote the growth in the hair roots. Rice Power Essence No 11 produced by the sake maker YushuniBrewer Co. is an important ingredient in Kose’s Moisture Skin repair moisturizer.

Image Sources: 1) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 2) British Museum, 3), 4), 5), 6) 9) Ray Kinnane, 7), 10) JNTO, 8), Japan Zone, 11) Japan Visitor

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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