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.
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.
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.
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.
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?