Japan’s traditional national alcoholic beverage is sake! This delicious rice-based liquor has an unusual and inviting taste steeped in history. In this article, we will explore sake’s taste, how sake is made, and how to drink it!
What Is Sake?
Are you looking to dip your toe into the world of Japanese alcoholic beverages? Sake might be a good place to start! Sake is a type of Japanese alcohol that’s brewed from the fermented juice of the rice-like Aspergillus or birch fungus. It’s often paired with sushi or as a light meal. If you’ve ever tried it, you probably remember the first time you ever tried sake. It probably tasted like vinegar. And that’s because sake is traditionally stored in wooden barrels that previously held white vinegar. The acidic compounds in the vinegar neutralize the yeasts and other microorganisms in the sake.
So, when you try sake for the first time, you’re tasting it straight from the barrel. It might not have the most inviting aroma, but you can bet it’s got the most amazing taste!
Is Sake a wine or liquor? Sake is not a wine or liqueur but a unique alcoholic beverage. It is similar to wine because both of these beverages are brewed alcohol. Sake is also a bit like beer, as it is made with steeped grains and fermented with yeast.
Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic drink. Interestingly, in Japan, the word sake refers to any alcoholic beverage, but what we call sake is usually referred to as “nihonshu.” Although often called Japanese rice wine or sometimes also Japanese vodka, sake is neither wine nor vodka. It can be classified as a brewed alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.
See also: What Does Japanese Curry Taste Like?
Sake Flavor Profile
What does sake taste like? Sake does not have a very pronounced taste, but it can be described as a soft and slightly sweet taste with perfectly balanced savory and tart notes. The flavor of sake is nutty and fruity.
Sake is a sweet drink with a savory flavor. The rich flavor comes from glutamic acid in the drink and gives the drink its umami flavor. The aroma of sake slightly resembles wine, but it is not long-lasting and disappears a few moments after being poured into the cup.
The taste and flavor depend on the way the sake is served. Cold sake is like very dry white wine. However, sake is sweeter than wine. Hot sake tastes like vodka since all alcohol vapors go directly to the head. Overall, sake is very light and smooth, it does not leave you with a heavy feeling after drinking.
Most say sake tastes a lot like wine. It has a light, sweet taste, which can sometimes be a little sour. Sometimes it can taste like fruit (like apple or raspberry). And sometimes, you can get a really nice sweetness and floral aroma from it.
Sake is a very light, dry, and crisp drink. Sake can be sweet, but it’s most often served as a dry, medium-bodied drink. The alcohol content ranges from 10 to 16%. The best sake is considered to be the “junmai sake” which has been brewed using rice that has been polished to remove the outer layer of bran and germ. Junmai sake is considered to have the best flavor and aroma.
Why does sake have this unique flavor? There are many reasons for the unique flavor of sake, but the main reason is that the fermentation process is different than the fermentation process of beer or wine. The process of making sake involves letting the fungus grow on rice and then allowing it to ferment in an open-air environment to release this unique flavor.
Is Sake Strong? Sake Alcohol Content
The alcohol content of sake varies from 10% to 20% in different kinds of drinks. Undiluted sake contains 14-20% alcohol, which is a bit more than wine (12-14%). Diluted sake’s alcohol content is 10-20%.
According to the Law of Japan, the alcohol content of sake cannot be higher than 22%. However, technically speaking, sake cannot be over 20% strong. The alcohol in sake comes from converting sugar in yeasts into alcohol. But yeasts cannot produce alcohol when the alcohol content is over 20%.
There are some technical ways of making stronger sake – for example, 46% Samurai drink. This drink is made from sake with other rice-made alcohol drinks added for higher alcohol content. Therefore, this is not a sake per se but is classified as a liqueur.
Is Sake a Strong Drink?
The average alcohol content of sake is 15-16%. It is the highest level among fermented beverages (e.g., sake, wine, beer). However, sake is not much stronger than red wine, only 2-3% stronger. People believe that sake is strong only because it is served in small portions like vodka.
How Do You Drink Sake?
How Is Sake Served? Traditionally sake is served in ceramic or porcelain cups named “ochoco.” Since the alcohol content in sake is around 18-20%, it is usually served in fewer amounts than wine.
There are two ways of serving sake – hiya (cold style) and atuskan (warm style). In hiya style, sake in tokkuri (a vase in which sake is served) and ochoco are refrigerated. In atuskan style, sake is warmed up. Different sake types are better served at different temperatures. Therefore, the best way to find your favorite is to try a lot of different types for the sake of different temperatures. Also, the flavor of sake depends on the temperature it is served. The lighter flavor is more evident when sake is served cold, bold and bright taste appears when the drink is served warm. Most premium class sake is served chilled.
Interestingly, sake is not warmed up on direct fire. Sake of room temperature is placed into the saucepan with warm water. In that way, sake is getting warmer. This method just with iced water, can also be applied for cooling sake down for cold style serving. Sake should be warm but never hot. There are two reasons to warm up sake: one is that it softens the fruit notes in the drink, and another one is that it emphasizes the sweetness of sake and minimizes the acidity. If you are lost about what temperature sake should be served, most labels on bottles say the recommended temperature for each kind of drink.
Do You Sip or Take Shots of Sake?
Even though sake is served in a small cup called ochoco, it does not mean you should drink sake in shots. Sake is usually treated more like wine. So it is better to sip sake in small portions and enjoy the taste and flavor of this Japanese drink.
Japanese traditions dictate some rules for the serving of sake. Thus, sake is served to other persons but not yourself. Usually, the person sitting next to you should serve you the drink. The cup (ochoco), as well as the bottle (tokkuri), is held by both hands.
There are some myths about trying sake. Although it was mentioned earlier that sake is served in ochoco – small porcelain or ceramic cups, some experts recommend trying sake in a wine glass. It makes flavors more pronounced. Also, there is a myth that sake is only served with Japanese food. Well, it is not true. In Japanese culture, sake is secondary to the meal, and its main role is to emphasize and highlight the taste of the meal. Therefore, you do not have to be concerned with the food pairing or wine. Sake is perfectly paired with most Asian food. The most obvious example is sushi. However, you also can try sake with other food – pasta, cheese, different salads, and even pizza. Do not be afraid to experiment.
How Is Sake Traditionally Made?
Sake undergoes fermentation of yeast process when yeast added to sugar produces alcohol and CO2. Essentially sake is made from rice and water with adding yeast and koji.
There are several steps of sake production:
- Step one – ingredients selection. Sake is made from water and rice. Rice is special, different from everyday cooking rice. When you look at rice, you can see white starch inside and a transparent protein layer outside. This outside part can slow down the fermentation process, therefore, rice is milled before preparation. Water is another essential ingredient. The chemical content of water can influence the fermentation process, so water should be of the highest quality and chosen carefully.
- Step two – Rice washing and soaking. Nowadays, the process is mechanized. However, some companies still use traditional washing bags for rice.
- Step three – steaming. Another step of sake production is rice steaming. Unlike preparing rice at home when it is boiled in hot water, rice for sake is steamed, which preserves the necessary texture for further production.
- Step four – rice cooling. Rice must be cooled for further processes.
- Step five – koji making. This process takes 48 hours and consists of rice inoculation with koji spores and further mixing of rice.
- Step six – fermentation. Fermentation is performed in a special tank where water, yeast, koji, and rice are mixed. This vessel is filled gradually in 3 stages, which take 4 days. Fermentation occurs with a temperature ranging from 8 to 18 degrees Celsius and takes 21 days.
- Step seven – pressing. After the fermentation process is over, the mass is placed into cloth bags which are placed in the press. After pressing, under the natural gravity of with the help of an industrial presser, first-pressed sake appears from the press. This sake is called “arabashiri.” After pressing, sake is filtered.
- Step eight – pasteurization. After pressing, sake needs to be pasteurized to kill all unnecessary bacteria. Sake undergoes two pasteurizations. The first one happens right after filtration. Then sake is stored from 6 to 12 months and, before bottling, undergoes second pasteurization.
- Step nine – bottling. The final stage of sake production is bottling.
Is Sake Made With Spirit?
No, sake is not a spirit and is not made with spirit. Sake is made through the fermentation process without adding any kind of spirit.
Sake is a result of fermentation, the same as beer and wine, but not distillation, like gin or vodka. Therefore, sake is not considered a spirit. Although sake belongs to the same category as beer and wine, it should not be called “rice beer” or “rice wine.” These drinks are made with different ingredients and with slightly different processes.
Is Sake Made by Chewing Rice?
Sake used to be made with chewing rice. Some islands had this traditional way of sake production till almost the middle of the last century. However, nowadays, sake is no longer made with chewing rice.
Kuchikamizake is a drink that is made with chewing rice. Enzymes in human saliva make the fermentation process faster and easier. So some people used to chew on rice and spit the mixture into the tub, starting the fermentation process. Kuchikamizake is an ancient drink and some tribes in Africa now still make it.
What Kind of Alcohol Is in Sake?
Sake is a brewed alcohol, similar to wine or beer but is actually a unique type of alcohol. The alcohol content is usually around 15% and is much lower than in distilled drinks such as gin or vodka.
There is a great difference between brewed and distilled alcohol. Brewed drinks are made by the fermentation process, for example, beer is made by fermenting cereal grains, wine – by fermenting grapes, and sake is made by fermenting rice. But spirit drinks, such as whisky, vodka, and gin, are distilled to achieve a higher level of alcohol. In short – the alcohol undergoes an additional step – distillation. For example, brandy is made from distilled alcohol obtained from fermented grapes. Distillation makes it possible to achieve a high level of alcohol content in spirits.
Sake has a long ancient history of interconnection between two countries – China and Japan.
How Was Sake Invented?
The process of fermenting rice was brought to Japan from China. It is believed that it dates back to the second century BC, when rice cultivation started in China. The first written record of sake dates back to the third century when it was mentioned in a Chinese history book.
By the ninth century, sake started appearing in Japanese domestic documents. Then sake was considered a drink only for the privileged. High-ranked people could drink clean filtered sake, whereas ordinary people could enjoy only an unrefined drink. In the middle ages, special vessels for sake were created, which made it possible to enjoy sake casually. Also, in the 15th-century, sake was firstly pasteurized. Around the 17-19th centuries, sake production reached an industrial level. Since that time, sake’s quality has improved and become widely popular around the world.
Is Sake From China or Japan?
Sake is a traditional Japanese drink. Although, it is believed that sake has origins in China. The rice fermentation process – the basis of sake production – was invented in China. However, sake, as we know it today, was made in Japan.
Nowadays, Japan has around 2000 breweries where sake is produced. However, there is a growing number of breweries around the world since sake is gaining popularity in other countries. Japan even has its traditional sake day, which is celebrated every year on the 1st of October.
Who Started Sake?
Although sake is a traditional Japanese drink, it has its origins in China, since rice fermentation was invented there.
The process of sake production used to be raw. It was based on rice chewing. People gathered around to chew rice and split it into the tub, which would be left for the fermentation process (human saliva made fermentation faster). After the invention of koji, people changed the process of sake production. The first mention of sake production was made in a Chinese history book around the 3rd century, and by the 7th century, the technique spread around Japan.
How Old Is Sake Drink?
It is estimated that sake was brought to Japan around 2500 years ago. Historians do not know the exact time when it was invented, but most probably around the time when people opened the rice fermentation process.
Japanese sake was firstly mentioned in Chinese history records in the 3rd century, and Japanese history, the first written record, dates back to the 7th century. So sake is quite an old drink.
Japan has a lot of things to be proud of, and sake is one of them. Being a traditional Japanese alcohol drink, it is widely known around the world, and more and more people appreciate the taste and flavor of this drink. Although, there are a lot of myths about sake. As we now know, sake is not “Japanese wine” or “Japanese vodka”, it is a separate drink just similar in production to wine and beer. Sake has smooth umami and a slightly sweet flavor. It is perfectly balanced with tart, fruity and nutty notes. Next time you order sushi, grab a bottle of sake!
Sake Taste FAQ
How Would You Describe the Taste of Sake?
Sake can be described as a slightly sweet, well-balanced drink that resembles white wine. It has a nutty and fruity flavor.
What Alcohol Does Sake Taste Like?
Although people sometimes call sake “Japanese vodka,” sake slightly resembles white wine. Moreover, the alcohol content is just a bit higher than in wine. Also, both drinks are brewed.
Is Sake Similar to Vodka?
No, sake and vodka are not similar. The alcohol content is different, vodka is 40% while sake is 20%. Secondly, the manufacturing process is different – vodka is distilled, and sake is brewed. Sake also has a nutty, fruity, and savory taste, while vodka has less flavor and is more citrusy.