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Drinking sake: history & how to drink Nihonshu explained

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  August 10, 2022

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There are plenty of alcoholic drinks made from grains, but in Japan, rice is the preferred grain of choice.

Japan’s national alcoholic drink is sake, which has been a part of Japanese culture for many centuries.

Drinking sake: history & how to drink Nihonshu explained

There are different types of sake, each with its own unique flavor.

The most common type of sake is called futsu-shu, which accounts for around 80% of all sake produced in Japan.

Other types of sake include junmai-shu, ginjo-shu, and daiginjo-shu.

Drinking sake is different from cooking sake.

Sake that is meant for cooking is called kome-shu and has a much lower alcohol content. It is also not as fragrant as sake that is meant for drinking.

So, what exactly is drinking sake?

Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice with an alcohol content that ranges from 14% to 16%. It is also known as Nihonshu or seishu in Japanese. Sake is typically served in small cups or glasses and is meant to be drunk in small sips. It can be enjoyed either warm or cold.

In this post, I’m discussing everything you need to know about drinking sake, from its history and benefits to the different types of sake and how to drink it.

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What is drinking sake?

Sake that is made for drinking is a Japanese alcoholic beverage that has been fermented from rice. It’s made from rice that is polished to remove the bran.

This alcoholic beverage is created from rice, yeast, water, and koji. Its appearance is transparent, and it has a moderate alcohol content of around 15% to 20%.

The taste of sake depends on the type of rice used, how much the rice is polished, the water used, and the fermentation process.

Overall, the taste is similar to a dry white wine with a hint of light fruitiness.

Grade, style, and the degree of polishing applied to the rice are used to categorize sake into different types.

Sake is also known as Nihonshu or seishu.

Sake that is meant for drinking is typically served in small cups or glasses and is meant to be drunk in small sips. It is served either warm or cold.

Some people refer to sake as a rice wine, but technically this is incorrect. It is not made from grapes, and the fermentation process is different.

Instead, sake is made using a brewing process that is more similar to that of beer.

Sake has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, and it plays an important role in traditional ceremonies and celebrations.

Nowadays, sake is enjoyed by people of all ages and is a popular choice for a night out with friends or for a special occasion.

Since it’s a popular beverage for casual drinking, sake is readily available in Japan and most often served at their local pubs called izakayas.

What does sake mean?

The Japanese word sake means ‘alcoholic beverage.’ It is written as 酒 (kanji), which is composed of the characters for ‘rice’ and ‘to make.’

So since the word sake refers to any type of alcoholic beverage, the Japanese use the real name for sake which is nihonshu (日本酒), and this refers directly to fermented rice drinking sake.

Nihonshu actually just means ‘Japanese alcoholic beverage,’ and since sake is Japan’s national drink, that’s exactly what it is.

What does sake taste like?

The taste of drinking sake differs depending on the type of rice used, how much the rice is polished, the water used, and the fermentation process.

Sake generally tastes like a dry white grape wine with a mild fruitiness. The taste also depends on whether it is served warm or cold.

There are different types of sake, and some are sweeter than others, with varying levels of acidity.

What is sake made of?

Sake is made from fermented rice, yeast, water, and koji.

The rice used to make sake is different from the rice you would eat. It is a short-grain rice that is polished to remove the bran.

The amount of polish applied to the rice affects the final taste of the sake. The more the rice is polished, the cleaner and smoother the final taste will be.

Water is an important ingredient in sake, and the type of water used can also impact the taste. Soft water leads to a fruity flavor, while hard water results in a dryer taste.

The yeast is what turns the starch in the rice into sugar, which is then fermented into alcohol.

Koji (also known as Aspergillus oryzae) is a type of mold that is used in the fermentation process. It breaks down the starch in the rice into sugars, which the yeast then ferments into alcohol.

How is drinking sake made

Sake is made using a two-step process. The first step is called “multiple parallel fermentation.”

This is when the koji, rice, and water are mixed together and left to ferment.

The mold breaks down the starch in the rice into sugars, which the yeast then ferments into alcohol.

This creates a mixture called moromi.

The second step is called “single batch fermentation.”

This is when the moromi is pressed to extract the sake. The final product is then filtered and pasteurized before being bottled.

How long does it take to make sake?

The fermentation process for sake takes about two weeks.

However, sake is typically aged for six months to a year before being bottled and sold. This aging process helps to develop the flavor and improve the quality of the sake.

Sake that is meant for aging is typically stored in wooden barrels.

Sake that is meant to be consumed immediately is typically stored in stainless steel tanks.

How much alcohol is in sake?

Most drinkable sake has an ABV of 15-16%.

However, there are some types of sake that have a higher ABV. These are typically served warm and are called “genshu.”

Genshu sake has an ABV of 18-20%.

There are also some types of sake that have a lower ABV. These are typically served chilled and are called “futsushu.”

Futsushu sake has an ABV of 10-14%.

Finally, there is a type of sake that has no alcohol added. This is called “junmai.”

Junmai sake has an ABV of 12-14%.

Types of sake & different grades

Sake is classified into different grades. The four main grades are:

According to Japanese grades, junmai is the best, and futsu-shu is the worst quality because it’s more of a table sake and it’s cheap.

When buying sake, it is important to pay attention to the label. The main types of sake are futsu-shu, junmai-shu, ginjo-shu and daiginjo-shu.

Let’s take a closer look at each grade:

Daiginjo-shu

This is the highest quality and most expensive type of sake. It is made with rice that has been milled down to at least 50% or less.

Junmai-shu

This is the purest grade of sake because no additional alcohol is added to it. If “junmai” isn’t included on a label, an additive has likely been added. Junmai is best known as premium sake.

The taste is best described as bold, and earthy, with a stronger rice flavor. It is polished to 70%.

Honjozo-shu

This is a sake that is only made in Japan and contains a small percentage of brewer’s alcohol to enhance its flavors. It is polished to 70% or less.

Both types of premium sake fall into one of two categories: honjozo-shu, which is sake with a little quantity of distilled alcohol added, and junmai-shu, which is sake prepared exclusively from rice, water, yeast, and koji.

These two styles taste very similar to one another, so choosing which is better is undoubtedly a question of taste.

Although many people think that adding alcohol to honjozo makes for stronger, more aromatic sakes, a sizable portion of people continue to be junmai purists who insist that sake without any additives is the only option.

Futsu-shu

This is a very simple sake that has no rules and is compared to table wine in terms of quality.

The reason this sake is often served hot is that heat hides a multitude of sins when it comes to flavor.

Futsu-shu is the most common type of sake and makes up around 80% of all sake produced in Japan. It is made with rice that has been milled down to at least 70%.

Futsu-shu sake is typically light in taste and has a lower alcohol content.

Ginjo-shu

This is sake that is made with rice that has been milled down to at least 60% or below.

In order to be classified as ginjo, a sake must also undergo a special brewing process that is called “gentei shikomi.”

This process involves steaming the rice at a lower temperature and for a longer period of time.

This results in a more fragrant and flavorful sake. It is flowery and fruity with a mild flavor.

Some other varieties to know:

  • Genshu – This is undiluted sake that has a higher alcohol content (18% to 20%). It is typically served warm.
  • Namazake – This is unpasteurized sake that needs to be refrigerated.
  • Koshu – This is aged sake that has a brown color and a sweeter flavor.
  • Nigori – This is unfiltered sake that has a cloudy appearance.

History of sake

Sake has been around for centuries and is thought to have originated in China approximately 7000 years ago.

However, only in Japan do beverages that resemble sake exist today.

Since the introduction of rice cultivation from China in the fifth century BC, alcohol-based rice-based drinks have been produced in Japan.

It is believed that sake was introduced to Japan in the 2nd century BC.

But it took a very long time until sake was first mentioned in Japan in the 3rd century AD.

By the eighth century, when Nara served as the home of the imperial court in power, sake was regularly mentioned in household writings.

Brewers utilized mold to produce sake, which most likely denoted the use of koji.

The imperial court established a separate government division to oversee sake brewing in 689.

Only the elite, most likely including members of the imperial court and religious authorities, had access to the beverage at the time.

According to historical accounts, the emperor and nobility drank cooled sake in the summer.

The 10th century marked an important milestone in the history of sake.

Many of the practices and traditions surrounding sake during this time period are described in the “Engishiki” code of practice.

It describes the steps involved in making sake, which at this time was still regulated by the imperial court.

A rating system for sake based on the brewing process is also described in The Englishiki. For instance, only those in high positions drank clear sake with rich flavors.

Only the crude, muddy and cloudy sake could be shared by the lower classes.

Additionally, this sake was saved for important events like festivals and New Years’, usually after presenting the beverage to the gods.

Can sake be mixed?

Sake can be mixed with other drink and even tastes good as part of cocktails.

Sake can be mixed with beer, wine, or spirits. It can also be mixed with non-alcoholic beverages such as green tea or ginger ale.

There are plenty of sake cocktail recipes that you can try. Just be sure to avoid mixers that will mask the flavor of the sake.

This process of mixing sake is called “chōzō” and is a popular way to drink sake among young people.

Some common chōzō include:

  • Sake with shochu – This is a popular way to drink sake in Kyushu and is also known as “shochu-zō”.
  • Sake with green tea – This is a popular way to drink sake in the summer.
  • Sake with fruit juices – This is a popular way to drink sake among women.
  • Sake with carbonated water – This is a popular way to drink sake among young people.

What can sake be replaced with?

If you don’t have sake, you can replace it with rice wine or soju.

Soju is a Korean alcohol that is made from either rice, wheat or sweet potatoes. It has a similar clear appearance and slightly sweet flavor.

Rice wine is made in a similar fashion to sake but with different ingredients. It is less dry than sake and has a sweeter flavor.

Both of these substitutes can be found at most Asian markets. Find more great sake substitutes in my post here.

What is the best sake to buy? Best brands

One of the most popular brands of Japanese sake is Gekkeikan Sake.

Best sake to buy on amazon Gekkeikan sake

(view more images)

It is a Junmai sake with a light, refreshing taste. It has some grassy and fennel spice notes, but it’s mild.

This sake pairs nicely with a tasty rice or noodle stir-fry and meaty dishes.

If you’re looking for premium pure tasting sake, try the Tozai Typhoon Honjozo Junmai Sake.

How is sake served? + Sake etiquette

Sake can be served hot or cold for straight consumption.

While cheaper grades of sake, like futsu-shu, are typically served warm, premium sake is best served chilled.

The easy rule of thumb for the hot/cold dilemma is that better sakes should be served slightly cooled, whilst lesser sakes should be warmed up.

The entire flavor profile of the sake can be better tasted at cooler temperatures (about 45 degrees).

On the other hand, the heat is advantageous for sake that is less expensive and has a harsher flavor profile (characterized by a sweet and fruity taste), as some of the off-notes are harder to detect.

Sake temperature, however, is primarily a matter of taste, unlike with wines.

You’re not doing it wrong as long as you don’t chill it below 40 degrees or heat it above 105 degrees. If you like it hot, go for it.

You can serve sake to visitors by using traditional sake sets, which often come with small cups and a small carafe (tokkuri bottle).

If you are serving sake with a meal, it is typically served in small cups or glasses. If you are drinking it on its own, it can be served in a larger glass or vessel.

  • Warm sake is called kanzake and is typically served in a small ceramic bottle called a tokkuri.
  • Cold sake is called reishu and is typically served in a small glass or cup.

Usually, people own a sake serving set at home, which is used to serve the drink. It includes small cups and the tokkuri bottle.

Sake can also be served on the rocks (with ice) or mixed with fruit juice or soda.

Additionally, if you have company, it is polite to pour sake for the person sitting next to you and let them do the same for you.

When pairing sake with food, it is important to match the weight of the sake with the weight of the food.

For example, lighter dishes like sushi would be best paired with a light and delicate ginjo-shu, while heartier dishes like a grilled steak would be better suited for a full-bodied daiginjo-shu.

Find the best recipes to cook with sake here

What are the health benefits of sake?

Sake is a good source of amino acids and antioxidants. It has also been shown to improve digestion and help prevent certain types of cancer.

That’s because this alcoholic beverage is made from fermented rice and does not contain any added sugars.

Sake also contains vitamins B1 and B2, as well as minerals such as sodium, potassium, and calcium.

Moderate consumption of sake has also been linked to a reduced risk of stroke and heart disease.

Sake and other drinks

As mentioned, sake simply means alcoholic beverage. But it is important not to confuse proper drinking sake with other types of drinks.

What’s the difference between drinking sake and cooking sake?

Cooking sake is a type of rice wine that is used for cooking. It has a sweet flavor and is lower in alcohol content than regular sake.

Drinking sake is a type of rice wine that is meant to be consumed as is, whereas the cooking sake is only used for cooking foods like soups and stews.

The main difference between the two is that drinking sake has a higher alcohol content which makes it too strong to use for cooking, and it’s too fragrant.

The cooking sake is lower quality and not meant to be drunk.

So, if you want to enjoy sake, be sure to buy the drinking kind!

What’s the difference between drinking sake and soju?

Soju, also known as Korean vodka, is a distilled alcoholic beverage that originated in Korea. It’s Korea’s national alcoholic drink, while sake is Japan’s.

Soju is typically made with rice, but can also be made with other starches such as wheat or sweet potatoes.

Soju is clear and typically has an alcohol content of around 20%.

Sake, on the other hand, is a Japanese rice wine that is made by fermenting rice that has been milled down to at least 70%.

Sake is typically light in color and has an alcohol content of around 15%.

While soju is typically drunk neat, sake is often served with food and can be drunk warm or cold.

Soju is typically cheaper than sake and is considered to be a lower-quality alcohol.

However, there are premium brands of soju that are on par with premium sake in terms of quality and price.

What is the difference between sake and beer?

The main difference between sake and beer is that sake is made from fermented rice, while beer is made from fermented grains.

So although both of these alcoholic beverages are brewed, they’re made from different prime ingredients, and their taste and color are different.

Sake also has a higher alcohol content than beer, typically around 15-16%, while most beers have an alcohol content of 5% or less.

Additionally, sake is typically served in small glasses or cups, while beer is typically served in larger glasses or mugs.

Sake is often served with sushi or sashimi, as the two complement each other well.

The light and delicate flavors of sushi are brought out by the slightly sweet and acidic flavor of sake.

Sake can also be served with grilled meats, tempura, noodles, and rice dishes.

Generally, sake pairs well with many dishes, as its light and versatile flavor can enhance the flavors of both light and hearty dishes.

This classic teppanyaki beef steak with sake/ soy sauce recipe is always a hit!

FAQs

Can sake go bad?

Sake can go bad if it is not stored properly. Sake should be stored in a cool, dark place and consumed within a few months of opening.

It’s best to consume sake within a week or two of opening, as it will start to lose its flavor after that.

Unopened sake in its original bottle usually has a shelf life of around 2 years.

Can sake be frozen?

Sake can be frozen, but it will change the flavor and texture of the beverage. If you do choose to freeze sake, it is best to consume it within a few months.

How long does sake last?

Sake can last for up to two years if it is unopened. Just to mention again, sake should be stored in a cool, dark place.

Since sake is brewed like beer, it doesn’t last as long as grape wine or some spirits. So, it’s best to consume it within a few months of opening.

That being said, some sake can actually improve with age, so you may want to try aging it for a year or two if you have the patience.

How does sake age?

Sake ages like wine, and the flavor can change over time. When sake is first brewed, it is typically fruity and light.

As it ages, it becomes more complex, with notes of caramel, honey, and nuts.

Sake can be aged in barrels or bottles. The length of time that sake is aged will affect the flavor.

Sake that is aged for a shorter period of time will be lighter in flavor, while sake that is aged for a longer period of time will be more full-bodied.

Sake can be aged for anywhere from a few months to a few years.

How to do sake bomb?

The term sake bomb refers to a drinking game where sake is dropped into a glass of beer. It’s basically a cocktail.

To do a sake bomb, you will need two glasses: one for the beer and one for the sake.

  1. Fill the beer glass about halfway with beer. Fill the sake glass with sake.
  2. Place the sake glass on top of the beer glass. Make sure that the glasses are touching each other.
  3. Have one person hold the two glasses together while another person counts to three.
  4. On the count of three, everyone yells “Sake Bomb!” and the person holding the glasses lets go.

The sake will fall into the beer and mix together. Drink the concoction quickly before it gets too foamy.

Can sake be stored at room temperature?

Sake can be stored at room temperature, but it should not be stored for more than a few days.

Sake should be stored in a cool, dark place. If sake is stored in a warm place, it will start to spoil, and the flavor will change.

Should sake be refrigerated?

Sake can be refrigerated, but it should not be stored for more than a few days.

However, it’s okay to refrigerate sake if you want to serve it cold.

Is sake like vodka or wine?

Sake is brewed like beer, so it is more similar to beer than it is to vodka or wine.

However, sake does have some similarities to wine. Like rice wine, sake is made from rice, and it can be aged in barrels or bottles.

When it comes to the alcohol content, sake is similar to wine, with most types containing around 15-16% alcohol.

Compared to vodka, sake has a lower alcohol content and a sweeter flavor.

Can sake get you drunk?

Sake can definitely get you drunk.

Sake is a rice wine, and it has an alcohol content of 15-16%. That is higher than most beers, which have an alcohol content of around 5%.

So, if you drink too much sake, you will definitely get drunk. It is alcohol, after all!

Conclusion

Sake is a rice drink that is brewed like beer with a translucent color. It has a sweet flavor and a high alcohol content.

According to Japanese culinary tradition, sake is often served in small ceramic cups called ochoko.

This fermented rice drink has an AVB of about 15%, so it makes for the perfect drink to enjoy with friends on karaoke night or during a meal.

The warmer the sake, the better it tastes, so make sure to heat it up, especially if you plan on drinking the most common kind.

I have reviewed the best sake for both drinking and cooking here with a buyers guide

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.