Sake: Japan’s Liquid of Choice

Sake is such an integral part of Japanese culture. There are so many different types of sake, different brands, different ways to drink it, different occasions to drink it on. Having gone out with my Japanese colleagues (surprise, surprise, teachers love to drink!) on many occasions, I feel like I’ve learnt a little about this complex alcoholic liquid.

Firstly, sake is pronounced ‘sa-keh’ with an emphasis on the ‘keh’.  I can’t speak for Japanese people, but it sends a shiver down my spine whenever I hear foreigners say ‘sa-key’ or even ‘sack-ee’. Sorry, it just bugs me!

Sake as we know it today is said to have been around for over 1,200 years (since the Nara Period). It started out as meaning ‘rice wine’, but as other types of alcohol were introduced into Japan it came to be a blanket term for all alcohol. These days, to refer specifically to Japanese rice wine, people say ‘nihonshu’. I’ll refer to nihonshu as sake in this post.

Serving Styles

Depending on where you’re drinking, you’ll be served in a different way. If you sit at a bar, the bartender will pour the sake for you. One traditional pouring style is called sosogi-koboshi where they pour it into a cup and let it overflow onto a saucer or wooden box. Sometimes the sake flows from the bottle into a serving cup, into a smaller drinking cup, and then into a saucer. This ‘double waterfall’ is the coolest way I’ve seen it poured. A bit of flair makes the experience all the better, I say!

If you go to a regular izakaya bar and sit at a table, you’ll likely be given sake in a small serving flask called a tokkuri and tiny cups called ochoko. Another type of establishment is a local or private izakaya. There will be a small fridge full of bottles of sake you can access yourself, and you pay one price for a certain amount of time. The idea isn’t to get wasted but be able to enjoy different brands of sake, since you’re only pouring a small cup at a time.

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Overflow pouring style

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Ochoko sake cups

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Drinking Traditions

If you’re out with a group, it’s customary to look out for those older than you to make sure their cups are never empty. And others should do the same for you. It’s a cultural thing to do with showing respect for your elders. To be honest, I don’t really like the idea of a colleague or friend ‘serving’ me regardless their age, so I usually pour my own drink. I think people let me get away with it because I’m not Japanese!

If you go to a smaller izakaya, you might notice shelves of large sake bottles lined up with writing scrawled across them. These are the bottles of regular customers. They buy a bottle and write their name on them, and since it’s almost impossible to drink the lot in one night, they leave them in the restaurant for next time. The first time I saw this I thought it was quite smart – a good way to ensure people come back and also good advertisement for new customers when they see the place has so many regulars!

Aside from izakaya restaurants, a common place to drink sake is of course in your own home. There aren’t any particular rules to drinking at home except on New Year’s Day. This type of sake, called otoso, is rice wine mixed with herbs, and drinking it on the first day of the year is said to ward of sicknesses. It’s served by pouring it from a special teapot into beautiful cups that stack on top of each other when stored away. Each member of the family takes turns drinking from one of the cups, starting from the youngest to the oldest.

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Sake, sake, sake
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Traditional otoso set for New Year’s Day

Types of sake

Sake is categorized differently depending on how it was made. The quality is usually determined by how much the rice grain has been polished and the fermentation process – though they are always creating new ways to get top quality!

Premium sake, Daiginjo, is made up of rice that’s been 50% polished leaving 50% of the grain, plus water, koji mold, yeast and distilled alcohol. Going down the scale, there’s Ginjo with 60% of the rice grains left, Honjozo with 70% remaining and Junmai with the whole rice grain. Then, there’s cloudy, unfiltered sake called Nigori, sake that’s been aged longer than usual called Koshu, sweet sake called Kijoshu, and many more types!! Personally, I don’t drink strong sake but prefer the lighter, sweeter types.

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Junmai Ginjo sake from Fukui Pref.
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Fridge full of sake

Breweries

If you’re really into your sake and want to learn more about it, it’s possible to visit sake breweries around the country.

In central Tokyo, there’s an old, traditional brewery that’s been turned into a museum. The Old Yoshida Sake Store originally served customers in the Edo Period. Though the history of the shop is long, the building itself was rebuilt in 1910. Still, it’s been beautifully restored and is worth a look if you’re interested in Japanese history. Inside, you’ll find relics of the past like bottles and barrels, old advertisement posters and various other things to do with sake.

A working brewery I once visited was Obata Sake Brewery on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. Niigata is known as ‘rice country’, and what better place to make rice wine than an island full of rice paddies! Obata Brewery is one of the most famous breweries in the country and wins national and international awards every year for its Manotsuru sake. You can taste test all of their sake and get a tour of the vats while learning about the sake-making process.

Have you ever had sake (nihonshu) before? What was your impression?

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16 thoughts on “Sake: Japan’s Liquid of Choice

  1. This was fascinating – I knew little or nothing about Sake (and have noted the correct pronunciation for future use and blasé correciton of those getting it wrong) but I feel I have learned much and will seek out a place that serves it traditionally (there must be somewhere in Boston) to try it properly myself. Thank you :)

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    1. Thanks Osyth! Haha, please do correct everyone anytime you hear they say it incorrectly!! :P Is there much of a Japanese community in Boston? Hope you find a decent sake bar :)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There are certainly many visiting Japanese particularly in the Finance District so I imagine there will be one or two places of quality but I shall enjoy the quest in any event!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very informative post, Celia. There is a lot more to sake than I’d have guessed. I’ve only had it a couple of times. I remember it being pleasant, but strong! I’m not much of a drinker. ;)

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    1. Thanks, Eliza! Yes generally it is very strong, but there are also types that are quite clean and light, as I’ve come to realise. Next time check out the rice polish ratio – the lower the percentage the better! :)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I totally agree with the pronunciation thing! I know a lot of Japanese people don’t seem to mind, but it drives me a little bonkers haha It’s like when people say karaoke as care-E-oh-key haha

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  4. 日本酒の文化について色々と教えてもらって、とてもためになりました。お気に入りの居酒屋で、とっくりからおちょこに酒を注ぎながら、好物の酒の肴(さかな)を味わう時こそ、風情(ふぜい)ある庶民(しょみん)の生活を垣間見る(かいまみる)機会ですね。英恵さんは日本酒の通(つう)になりましたね。すばらしい!

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    1. 全然!元同僚や佐渡島の醸造者のおかげで日本酒についてちょっと詳しくなってきました!今度一緒に飲みませんか?:)

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  5. I thought that when we say sake today, it would always refer to the rice wine. Now I know that it’s actually nihonshu I’m thinking about. A few years ago a coworker who returned from Japan brought sake to the office so we all could taste it, and it turned out really good! In fact it has become one of my favorite spirits. However, I don’t remember exactly which type of sake it was. I can only remember the bottle which was green.

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    1. It’s very confusing! On top of that, ‘alcohol’ is also a borrowed English word in Japanese, pronounced ‘a-ru-kou-ru’, but is used to refer to what percent alcohol a drink is.
      Glad you enjoyed the sake your coworker brought. (Most bottles are green!)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the calligraphy labels are cool, too. Seeing the drinking/after-work culture as ‘an outsider on the inside’ has been very interesting to say the least. I feel like I’ve learnt so much about Japanese culture just by going out with my colleagues!

      Liked by 1 person

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