Japanese Sake Overview


(Japanese Liquor)


What is Sake?

Sake or Saké (pronounced sah-keh) is an alcoholic beverage of Japanese origin that is made from fermented rice. Sake is sometimes called “rice wine” but the brewing process is closer to beer, converting starch to sugar for the fermentation process instead of wine.

In the Japanese language, the word “sake” (酒, “liquor”, also pronounced shu) generally refers to any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called “sake” in English is usually termed nihonshu (日本酒, “Japanese liquor”). Under Japanese liquor laws, sake is labelled with the word “seishu” (清酒, “clear liquor”).


Where did Sake originate?

The origin of sake is unclear. The earliest reference to the use of alcohol in Japan is recorded in the Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms. This 3rd-century Chinese text speaks of the Japanese drinking and dancing. Bamforth (2005) noted that the probable origin of sake was in the Nara period (710–794 AD). Sake is mentioned several times in the Kojiki, Japan’s first written history, which was compiled in 712 AD

By the Asuka period, true sake, that which is made from rice, water, and kōji mold , was the dominant alcohol and had a very low potency. In the Heian period, sake was used for religious ceremonies, court festivals, and drinking games. Sake production was a government monopoly for a long time, but in the 10th century, temples and shrines began to brew sake, and they became the main centers of production for the next 500 years.

How is Sake produced?

Rice used for brewing sake is called shuzō kōtekimai (sake rice). The grain is larger, stronger, and contains less protein and lipid than the ordinary rice eaten by the Japanese, however this rice is used only for making sake, because it is unpalatable for eating. Since sake made from rice containing only starch has a superior taste, the rice is polished to remove the bran. If a grain is small or weak, it will break in the process of polishing. . There are at least 80 types of sake rice in Japan. Among these,Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamanishiki and Omachi rice are very popular.


Water is one of the important ingredients for making sake. It is involved in almost every major process of sake brewing from washing the rice to dilution of the final product before bottling. Mineral content can play a large role in the final product.

Iron will bond with an amino acid produced by the koji to produce off flavours and a yellowish colour.

Manganese, when exposed to ultraviolet light, will also contribute to discolouration.

Conversely potassium, magnesium, and phosphoric acid serve as nutrients for yeast during fermentation and are considered desirable. Yeast will use those nutrients to work faster and multiply resulting in more sugar being converted into alcohol. And so hard water, with a higher nutrient content for yeast, is known for producing a drier-style sake, while soft water will typically yield sweeter sake.

Typically breweries source their water from wells, though lakes and rivers can be used as well. Also breweries may use tap water and filter and adjust components as they see fit

The first region known for having great water was the Nada-Gogō in Hyogo Prefecture. A particular water source called “Miyamizu” was found to produce high quality sake and attracted many producers to the region. To this day Hyogo has the most sake brewers of any prefecture.


The main mash then ferments, at approximately 15-20 degree Celsius for 2–3 weeks. With high-grade sake, fermentation is deliberately slowed by lowering the temperature to 10 °C or less. Unlike malt for beer, rice for sake does not contain the amylase necessary for converting starch to sugar and so it must undergo a process of multiple fermentation. The addition of A. oryzae provides the necessary amylases, gluco amylases, and proteases to hydrolyse the nutrients of the rice to support the growth of the yeast. In sake production these two processes take place at the same time rather than in separate steps, so sake is said to be made by multiple parallel fermentation.

After fermentation, sake is extracted from the solid mixtures through a filtration process. For some types of sake, a small amount of distilled alcohol, called brewer’s alcohol, is added before pressing in order to extract flavours and aromas that would otherwise remain behind in the solids. In cheap sake, a large amount of brewer’s alcohol might be added to increase the volume of sake produced. Next, the remaining lees (a fine sediment) are removed, and the sake is carbon filtered and pasteurised. The sake is allowed to rest and mature and then usually diluted with water to lower the alcohol content from around 20% to 15% or so, before finally being bottled.



Sake can be flavoured and given specific tastes, such as peach, cherry, plum, apple and raspberry are some of the flavours that I could find for sale. There are also descriptions that are included on the Sake bottles for more information:

Nihonshu-do = The sugar and alcohol content

San-do = Acid content

Aminosan-do = Savouriness


There are 4 main types of Sake with characteristics and a serving temperature.

Ginjo – light, fragrent and complex – served old

Daiginjo – full bodied and fragrent – served chilled

Honjozo – small amount of additional alcohol – served room temperature

Junmai – pure Sake with no additional starches/sugars – served warm







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