Get a Glimpse of Sake with This Handy Guide to Nihonshu

An introduction to Japan’s national beverage.


As Japan’s national beverage, sake has a significant cultural significance. It’s commonly used in Shinto rites and consumed on important events, and it’s becoming increasingly popular outside of Japan. Here’s a little introduction to get you started with this distinctly Japanese beverage.


The fundamentals

The word sake in Japanese means “alcohol,” but we’re talking about nihonshu (Japanese rice wine), which is more similar to beer in terms of brewing technique.

Rice and water are the two major ingredients of sake. The sake is supposed to taste better if the rice is of higher grade and the water is purer. Sakamai, a variety of brewer’s rice with larger grains than other sorts, is most usually utilized, especially for brewing premium sake.

The rice is first milled to remove the outer husk, as the bran can detract from the end product’s flavor. After that, the polished rice is soaked and cooked before being fermented with koji (a mold used to make fermented dishes like miso) and yeast. Before being allowed to mature, the resulting mixture is squeezed and filtered to remove any undissolved constituents.


Sake comes in several varieties

It appears straightforward at first, but as anyone who has purchased sake in Japan knows, it quickly becomes more complicated! The most basic distinction between futsuushu (ordinary sake) and tokutei meishoshu (special sake) is the most basic classification of the beverage (specially designated sake).

There are eight separate sub-categories within the “specially designated” classification that were specified by the Japanese government in the Liquor Tax Act. These include aspects like the presence of brewer’s alcohol and the degree to which the rice used was polished. All sake that falls into one of these categories is called premium sake and is of greater quality than futsuu, or ordinary sake.


The addition of alcohol

Brewers will sometimes add distilled alcohol to sake throughout the brewing process to change the flavor or keep costs down. Premium sake can be classed into two major categories that indicate this: purer sake with little or no extra alcohol is considered to be of greater quality, and premium sake can be classified into two main categories that indicate this:

  • 純米酒, also known as junmaishu, is sake brewed without the addition of alcohol or sugar.
  • 本醸造酒, also known as honjouzoushu, is sake with less than 10% added alcohol.


Rice polishing ratio

  • Because imperfections in the outer layers of rice grains affect sake flavor, the more polished the rice is, the better the drink should taste. The rice polishing ratio indicates how much husk was removed from the rice before it was used to brew sake. The lower this number is, the more rice has been polished away, and the sake is of higher quality.
  • 大吟醸, also known as daiginjou, has a rice polishing ratio of 50% or below.
  • 吟醸, also known as ginjou, has a rice polishing ratio of 60% or below.


The eight specially specified categories are made up of these four separate classifications, with junmai daiginjou being the highest quality of sake available.


Some people prefer it hot

Sake can be served at a variety of temperatures, ranging from chilled to room temperature to hot, depending on the drink, season, and personal preference. Higher-quality sake, such as daiginjou and ginjou, is typically served at cooler temperatures, but heating lower-quality sake is supposed to mask the flavor of impurities.

Hot sake is known as atsukan, and it is made by gradually warming the ceramic sake container (called tokkuri) in a pot of hot water to roughly 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). If you want chilled sake, ask for reishu, which is usually served around 5 to 10 degrees Celsius (41 F to 50 F). You can also request jouon, or sake served at room temperature. Why not try a few other combinations and see which you prefer?

Your drink will normally be given in a tiny glass or cup, regardless of the temperature you choose. A gou, which is around 180 milliliters, is the typical serving unit for sake. Larger bottles are also available, wit ni (two) gou as a serving vessel twice the size. However, remember to fill your drinking companions’ glasses first!


Tours and tastings are available

Toshimaya sake and a masu cup made of wood.



If this article has piqued your interest in sake (or just a thirst for the drink! ), pay a visit to one of the many breweries that offer tours and/or tastings throughout Japan. These are an excellent method to get hands-on experience with sake brewing. It’s also a great way to figure out which types you favor, as you’ll usually get to sample a variety of the many variations listed above.

  • Kawaguchiko’s Ide Sake Brewery

To make top-quality sake, this brewery employs clean spring water from Mt. Fuji. Tours are offered twice a day, or you can stop by for a sample at any time.

  • Nara’s Harushika Sake Brewery

Harushika is hidden away in Nara City’s old trade quarter, Naramachi. It offers drop-in sake tastings all year, and tours of the facility are available in February.

  • Niigata’s Hokusetsu Sake Brewery

This brewery is primarily known for “mellowing” its sake in a unique music room, which is claimed to speed up the maturation process and give it a more refreshing flavor. From May to October, tours are available, although the brewery is open all year for sake sampling.

  • Kyoto’s Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum

The Gekkeikan museum in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward is dedicated to sake production, and you may learn more about its history and practices at the museum. There is, of course, a tasting area!

  • Tokyo’s Toshimaya

Toshimaya, Tokyo’s oldest sake business, offers tours and tastings for tourists interested in learning more about the shop’s 420-year history and distinguished products.

  • Kobe’s Shushinkan brewery

The Nada neighborhood of Kobe is another well-known sake-producing locale, because to the abundance of high-quality water and rice, as well as its closeness to the Kobe harbor. Many breweries in the vicinity provide tours and tastings, including Shushinkan.


This is only a small sample of the public breweries that are open to the public; check online to see what’s available in your area.


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