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What is sake?

Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from polished and fermented rice. Its birthplace was Japan, but it is made in the United States as well. Japanese sake comes in many different styles and can be crisp and dry, thick and sweet, or sparkling and fruity. In Japan, the formal name of this brewed rice beverage is nihonshu; the word "sake" means alcohol in Japanese.

Where does sake come from?

Sake is an ancient drink that predates written history. While sake is associated with Japan, the first records of making a fermented rice drink are from China in the 300BC to 250 AD. The technique was brought to Japan between 710 and 794 BC when rice cultivation techniques improved. At first, it was a drink reserved for royalty; then, it expanded across Japan. Today, sake also is made in the U.S., most notably by Takara Shuzo in Berkeley, California, famous for Sho Chiku Bai, the first American-made sake.

What is sake made from?

Sake is made through a complex process that uses four ingredients: water, rice, koji, and yeast. In a process similar to making wine and beer, when yeast is added to the rice, it ferments the sugars into alcohol.

How is sake made?

There are four simple ingredients used in sake: rice, water, koji, and yeast. Specific varieties of rice are polished, then soaked and fermented to create sake. Here's a detailed description of the process for making a basic junmai-shu sake:

  1. Sake starts with varieties of white rice that are uniquely suited to making sake. Yamada Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku, and Omachi are the most famous varieties of rice used for sake. The rice is polished to remove the outer layers of the grain, leaving a starchy core that creates a more refined drink. At least 30% of the grain is removed to make a typical sake; in the most prized sakes, 70% of the grain is removed.
  2. The polished rice is washed, then soaked in freshwater that's low in iron and steamed. A beneficial mold called koji is added to part of the steamed rice. Koji helps break down the starches in the rice into sugars, so the water and rice mixture is ready for fermentation.
  3. Yeast is then added, and it eats the sugar in the rice in a process called fermentation. Wild yeast was used at one time, but now most sake brewers use proprietary yeasts that are more reliable. As the sugars are converted into alcohol, the mixture bubbles and releases CO2 gas.
  4. After the fermentation process is over, the rice is pressed to extract the sake. The liquid is filtered and then sterilized with heat to turn it into a shelf-stable drink. In some styles, alcohol is added as a flavoring. Then it's bottled.

What are the different kinds of sake?

There are many different kinds of sake since it can be made simply with just rice and water or with added alcohol and flavoring.

  • Junmai Shu - is acidic with rich, with full body and is often served as a warm sake
  • Gingo Shu - is delicate, aromatic and light
  • Daiginjo Shu - is a sub-category of Ginjo Shu made with highly polished rice, giving it exquisite aromas and subtle flavors
  • Honjozo - is made by adding brewers alcohol before the sake is pressed off the rice. This addition gives it a smooth, light body, and it's usually served warm
  • Nigori sake - is an unfiltered cloudy sake with a sweet taste and creamy texture
  • Sparkling sake - this is sake that's fermented a second time in the bottle to create a sparkling drink. Fruit juice or flavoring can be added, and the alcohol level is usually very low.

How strong is sake?

A typical sake has 15 to 16% alcohol. So sake is more potent than most wines and beers, though it has less alcohol than a distilled spirit. In Japan, 22% ABV is the legal alcohol limit for sake. Some styles of sake beverages mixed with fruit juice about 5% alcohol. If you're curious about the alcohol level, just read the label or ask a sales associate for help.

Is sake a wine or liquor?

Sake is neither wine nor liquor. Sake is a brewed rice beverage that is in a category all by itself.

How do you drink sake?

In Japan, sake can be enjoyed at a range of temperatures, from chilled to piping hot. Most times, though, sake is enjoyed chilled in a small ceramic cup. In the wintertime, hot sake warmed to a temperature of about 120 degrees Fahrenheit makes the aromas and flavors more vivid while keeping you warm.

Is it bad luck to pour your own sake?

Pouring your own sake is not bad luck, but it can be considered a sign of poor manners. The custom is that people show their care for fellow diners by pouring sake for each other.

Is sake a hard liquor?

No, sake is not hard liquor. Hard liquors like shochu are distilled, while sake is a brewed beverage that is produced in a way that is similar to beer (or brewing).

What does sake taste like?

The flavors found in sake can vary widely. Higher-end junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo sakes can have crisp and delicate flavors of fruit and flowers. Unfiltered nigori sakes are sweet and fruity, while infused sakes may have flavors of yuzu citrus, peach or strawberry added.

What alcohol is sake like?

Sake is a unique brewed rice beverage that's unlike any other alcohol. It's probably most similar to beer, which is brewed from grain.

Why don't you pour your own sake?

Sharing food and drinks in Japan is all about showing hospitality and building camaraderie with others at the table. So you pour sake for others, and in turn, they'll pour sake for you.

Can you mix sake with anything?

Sake makes a crisp, dry mixer in cocktails. If you're looking for sake with a bit more kick, try a honjozo, which has distilled alcohol.

How do you serve sparkling sake?

You can serve sparkling sake just like you serve sparkling wine. Chill it cold, then open it carefully, and pour it into a flute style glass.

What are the popular brands of sake?

Total Wine & More has all the most popular brands of Japanese sake, including nigori sake and American-made sake by Sho Chiku Bai. With such a wide selection of sake under $20, you can be sure to find a style you'll enjoy.

Some of our most popular brands of sake include:

Browse our full selection of junmai, nigori and Japanese sakes and take home a couple bottles to explore the best international sakes.

Want to learn more about sake?

Visit our Guide to Sake and Plum Wine to learn more about the best sakes from Japan, Oregon, California and around the world.