Japanese Sake: What You Need To Know | CoolJapan

First, how is sake produced?

In essence, sake is made from water and rice. The process of making sake includes the use of yeast and koji (a type of fungus used in Japan to make alcoholic beverages such as sake and shochu). The koji is mixed with freshly steamed rice before being wrapped in a blanket and incubated. The sweet, dry mixture is then placed in a vat together with more rice and water, and then, fermented with yeast for about two weeks. After that, more koji, steamed rice and water are added to the vat for a second fermentation that lasts about a week. After about four weeks, the sake is filtered, pasteurised and left to mature before the bottling process.

Types of sake

There are six main types of sake: junmai, honjozo, ginjo, daiginjo, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. Junmai, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo are all made with 100 per cent rice — the difference between each lies in the rate of rice polishing. Junmai daiginjo is the most premium sake with a lower rice polish rate, which is polished away till 50 per cent or more. Before the sake-making process, each rice kernel is milled (“polished”) to remove the outer layer of the grain and reveal its starchy core. The more the rice has been polished, the higher the classification level, with junmai being the highest classification level.

However, a high classification level doesn’t automatically mean better sake. When it comes to producing top-quality sake, there are other factors that come into play, such as the type and quality of water used and this is often related to the region where the sake is produced. For honjozo, daiginjo and ginjo, they are made with a mix of rice and distilled alcohol, which helps determine the overall flavour of the sake.

Best sake regions in Japan



Just as it’s difficult to pinpoint which parts of Italy or France produce the best-quality wine, there is also contention as to which part of Japan produces the best sake. After all, taste is highly subjective. However, among the experts, there are several areas that are generally agreed to be among the top producers of sake. Among them are Niigata Prefecture, where its snowy climates contribute to pristine water, as well as Nada in Kobe Prefecture, which is blessed with high-quality rice, mineral-rich waters and fair weather conditions. Of course, the most famous city for sake brewing is probably Fushimi in Kyoto, where sake production is said to date back to the 5th century. This May, 50 sake brewers from across Japan will be showcasing over 150 types of sake at Sake Spring at the Kyoto International Conference Centre.

Getting acquainted with sake

If you’re new to sake, one quick way to get yourself up to speed is to look up your local sake samurai. No, a sake samurai is not a warrior who enjoys his drink. A sake samurai is an honorific title bestowed by the Japan Sake Brewers Association to individuals who help promote sake and Japanese culture. Of course, these days, many Japanese fine-dining establishments employ a sake sommelier whose main job is to help diners distinguish between the different sake labels and make recommendations based on their preferred flavour profiles.

The road to sake appreciation is long and winding, but it’s never boring and offers plenty of surprises along the way. Hopefully, this primer into this quintessential Japanese alcoholic beverage will be the start of your enjoyable deep dive into the world of sake.