Sake – What You Need to Know

The History of Sake

All kinds of raw material can be used to make alcoholic drinks, and reports of simple concoctions produced in parts of Southeast Asia and remote islands of the Japanese archipelago cite such appetizing ingredients as millet and acorns, though rice seems to have been by far the most common. In Japan they used to chew up the rice and spit it into a vat, the enzymes from the saliva would then make alcohol. This type of ur-sake is known in Japanese as kuchikami-zake (mouth chewing sake) and was made for festivals in some areas of Japan well into this century. The tradition of sake is about 2,500 years old. Although there are Chinese records from 300AD that describe the Japanese as “drinking, dancing and singing”.

Making Sake

Sake-making is complex, old-fashioned, automated, labor-intensive, idiosyncratic, traditional, and high-tech. It is not easy to give a ‘typical’ example, because there are such wide variations. The common phrase is sake zukuri banryu, which means ‘ten thousand schools of sake making’.

First the rice is polished (seimai), the outer layer of the rice gets milled away. The outer portion of the rice contains minerals, fats and proteins that affect fermentaion adversly and contribute to off-flavors in the finished sake. Rice used in brewing is generally polished to 80% or less of its original size- and to less than 40% in some top grades. The rice powder from the unused portion is generally used in making Japanese pickles or as animal feed, although the fine, high-grade powder from the rice used for ginjo sake is used in making Japanese cakes and sweets. The further the rice is polished, the cleaner and lighter tasting the resulting sake will be.

Next the rice is washed (senmai), for ginjo sake hand washing is still more the rule than the exception. After washing, the rice must be soaked (shinseki). The purpose or this is to allow the rice grains to absorb the desired amount of water. This stage is crucial to establishing the consistency of the rice, which is to be steamed the next day. The texture of the steamed rice in turn determines the quality of koji that is produced, and affects the pattern of fermentation in the main wash. For the ‘average’ batch of rice (polished about 75%), steeping will take several hours. Many brewers leave the rice to soak overnight. The more rice is polished, the less it needs to soak. The washed rice is steamed (jomai), steaming softens the grains and breaks down the starch molecules, facilitating the growth of the vital koji bacteria. It also has the bonus effect of killing off all other microorganisms, leaving an initially sterile environment in which to propogate the sake mold. The steamed rice is divided according to how it will be used. Some is cooled and then goes directly into the mix. Between 20-30%, however, is taken to the heated culture room where it is infected with the spores of a bacteria called Aspergillus Oryzae. This is koji, the magical sake mold.

Alcohol is produced when yeast converts sugar into alcohol. Here, sake brewers face quite different challenges than winemakers, for example. The grapes from which wine is made contain glucose. Naturally occuring or cultured yeast changes this sugar to alcohol in a simple process, appropriately know as simple fermentation. In rice grains, however, there is no sugar. It is created by the addition of the koji mold, which converts the starch in the grain into sugars. The propagation of koji on steamed rice is considered to be the very heart of sake brewing, and is also one of its most distinctive features. Spores of mold are sprinkled like fine dust on the rice when it has cooled to about 91 degrees. After the mold grows for about 20 hours, it becomes visible to the naked eye in the form of white flecks. The rice is then stored in wooden boxes, and begins to give off a distinctive aroma. When the koji rice has reached the desited balance of taste, temperature, and aroma it is allowed to cool, thereby stopping the growth of the bacteria. The standard time to produce one batch of koji is about 40-45 hours. The finished koji rice is sweet to taste, because of the all-important sugars that have been produced, and smells rather like roasted chestnuts. Koji is quite hard to the touch and usually left for a day before use.

Next, the enzyme reduces these in turn to glucose molecules, which the yeast can use in the actual alcoholic fermentation, the stage creates the starter mash(moto). The use of this yeast starter mash is another peculiar feature of sake brewing. It is in essence a technique to produce a superbly pure, dense culture of sake yeasts, excluding wild yeasts and roque bacteria.

Finished koji rice, water and yeast are mixed together in a small tank. To this, lactic acid is added, raising the acidity of the mix, and thereby inhibiting the growth of unwanted bacteria, which may have a disastrous effect on fermentation. Afterwards, fresh steamed rice completes the mix.

The ingredients of the main wash (moromi)- water, koji rice and steamed rice – are added to the starter mash in three stages over a space of four days. Over the four days several ingredients are added and the mix continues to ferment. A few hours after all the ingredients have been added, the steamed rice absorbs all the liquid. The tank appears to contain a great swollen heap of very thick porridge. The mash begins to bubble as gas is given off during the burgeoning fermentation. Over time the mix becomes much lighter and more obviously liquid and it bubbles and seethes frantically for several days. When the right moment is judged to have arrived, the sake is pressed. The length and pattern of fermentation may vary enormously, from about two weeks to well over a month.

Next the sake is pressed (joso) in an automatic machine press. After a few days, a fine sediment of rice particles (lees) settles on the bottom of the tank. The liquid is siphoned off, leaving the sediment behind (ori-hiki). Most breweries carry out carbon filtration (roka) of the sake twice, once before storage and once before shipping. The sake is then pasteurized (hi-re), except in Nama sake which is left unpasteurized. Then the sake is bottled and shipped.

Categories of Sake

Sake, like wine, has many different categories:


Pure rice sake. Junmaishu is made only from white rice and rice koji. To qualify for this ranking, the sake must be made from rice polished to 70% or less. In terms of taste, junmai sakes tend to be full-bodied with a rather stronger flavor than other varieties, though there are many exceptions.


Sake with a limited addition of brewer’s alcohol. This type of sake must also be made from rice polished to 70% or less. It is distinguished from pure rice sake by the addition of brewer’s alcohol introduced to the fermenting mash before pressing. The flavor tends to be lighter than pure rice varieties, since flavor components are effectively diluted.

Sanzoshu or Futsushu

Lower grades of sake. Sake made from rice polished by less than 30% do not qualify for special distinctions. The bulk of all sake consumed belongs to one of the lower grades introduced below. The most common kind is called sanzoshu “triple sake”. Brewer’s alcohol is added in bulk, and certain other additives are also permitted. If you simply order ‘sake’ or hot sake in a restaurant or bar, the chances are good that a sanzoshu will arrive. Another variety is fusushu. Futsu literally means ‘ordinary’ or ‘standard’ sake. To qualify for this type of sake it is the same classification as sanzoshu, but sugars cannot be added.


Special brewed sake, make by painstaking special methods from the highest grade of rice. Where the rice used in junmai and honjozo varieties must be polished to 70% or less of its original size, the minimum requirement for ginjo sake is a costly 60%. If the rice used was polished to 50% or further, it qualifies for the label daiginjo, or great ginjo. The term chu-ginjo (middle jingo) is sometimes used for sake made from rice polished between 60-50%. Ginjo sake is prized for it’s refinement and superb, fruity aroma, so distinctive that it, too, is self-defining (ginjo-ka, meaning the aroma of ginjo). There are both alcohol-added ginjos and pure rice varieties, which are called junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo. Considered the ‘crown of the sake kingdom’.


Precious brewed sake, this particular style of sake has parallels with the port of the wine world. Around half of the water used in brewing is replaced with sake. The resulting sake is very sweet, and like port, is usually matured for several years before sale. Makes an excellent dessert sake.


Cloudy sake, this sake is only passed through a very coarse mesh. Whereas most sake is almost completely clear after pressing, the wide mesh used for nigori-zake allows a certain quantity of rice solids through, and the resulting sake is milky white.

Drinking Sake

If your image of sake is something hot and faintly toxic, you are not alone, but quality sake is meant to be served at room temperature or chilled. Brewers of quality sake have gone to enormous trouble, fermenting long and slow at the lowest possible temperature, to create the flavor and aroma which are the joy of a fine brew. To then heat up the result of their labors, during which the bouquet evaporates, is about as polite as a slap in the face, and a terrible waste. Sake lovers, therefore, generally drink their beverage cold, to better appreciate its beautiful flavor and aroma. There is no single ‘perfect temperature’, although there is a point at which the flavors and balance of any particular sake are at their best. For technological reasons, the brewers of days past were generally unable to make sake of as high a grade as is now possible. On the contrary, strange, musty flavors and earth odors mush have been a common feature. Yet, by what mush have seemed like a wonderful alchemy, many of these dubious flavors could be eliminated simply by heating the brew. Being hot, it also went down well on the cold winter days. It is said that because sake has no additives it is the most ‘healthy’ of the alcoholic beverages. If you drink only cold sake and nothing else, supposedly you will not get a hangover.

Hot sake is served in small decanters called tokkuri, and drunk from the delicate cups known as choko. Pracitcal they are not; since the hold only a tiny mouthful, they need constant refilling. That, in fact, is their purpose. Politeness requires that one’s companion’s cup is never empty. O-shaku, the congenial custom of mutual service, is wonderful for breaking the ice.

There are five general flavors of sake: Amai (sweet), Karai (dry), Nigai (bitter), Suppai (sour / acidic) and Shibui (astringent). The last term ‘astringency’ is rather unfamiliar to many. Imagine the astringency or strong tea (esp. green tea), or the tannic feel of red wine. The word astringent has unpleasant associations in English; this is not necessarily the case in Japanese. A fine sake is held to require a balance of all five flavors. For any one of the flavors to be too strong or too faint disrupts the balance. There are four general types of sake: Fresh (kunshu) -fragrant with a refreshing taste, Aged (jukushu) – mellow aroma, deep flavor, Light (soshu) – clean aroma/ light brisk flavor, and Rich (junshu) – rounded boquet, full flavor.