Seeking Sake - Lesson 1: What is Sake?

Seeking Sake - Lesson 1: What is Sake?

Brewed from rice and water, sake is an alcoholic beverage that originated from Japan. There are thousands of varieties of sake, and each prefecture has their own unique way of brewing it. Learn more about how sake is made as well as the primary categories of sake through this post. 

Story of Sake

In Japan, the word “sake” refers to alcohol in general. When we talk about sake, we're referring to "nihon-shu", an alcohol in Japan made from rice, rice malt and water. Throughout this article, we will use the term “sake” for easy understanding. 

Many agree that the story of sake started in China where rice was first grown and fermented. Thereafter, China brought rice into Japan and introduced their method of rice fermentation, nearly 2500 years ago. Japan then developed and perfected their own fermentation process using koji, an enzyme prepared from mould. 

In the beginning, sake in Japan was mostly produced by the Imperial Court. However, religious institutions in the country commenced their own sake brewing for ceremonial use and sake’s popularity grew immensely. Following that, during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), legislations allowed individuals to manufacture their own Japanese liquor.  

At the end of the 19th century, there were 30,000 sake breweries in Japan, but the number has declined to what is now - just over 1,400 breweries - due to war, government restructuring, and the modernisation of Japanese consumer culture.

Since then, sake which was originally used to celebrate rice harvests, is enjoyed with unique food cultures developed in each region of Japan.

How Sake is Made 

There are four main ingredients in making sake: rice, water, yeast and koji. Special rice, called “sakamai,” is used for making sake and is prepared through rice polishing. Even the quality of water differs within each region of Japan and its minerality influences the speed of fermentation (we will cover this in the next lesson). Yeast is another ingredient that contributes to the aroma components of sake. There are some strains of yeast that are unique to the individual brewery or to the regions, and some are developed by the prefecture. This then also creates a different taste profile for the sake brewed from different regions. The fourth ingredient, koji, is carefully distributed over the rice to convert the starches to sugar. 

Brewers' extensive skills to control the delicate environment throughout the production process. Every detail — from selecting the right combination of ingredients to polishing, washing and steaming the rice, to closely monitoring the progress of fermentation — plays an important role in creating the taste, aroma and appearance of the final product.


Types of Sake

There are many different types of sake, and it is a good idea to consider them before you can choose one or several that you would enjoy.

Junmai-shu, Ginjo-shu, Daiginjo-shu, Honjozo-shu and Namazake are the five main kinds of sake. They are brewed in slightly different ways and make use of different percentage of milling and hence, have a unique taste. Seimai Buai, or the degree of milling, makes all the difference to the sake. The drink is made with sake rice, which is stripped of the bran in order to remove the protein and oil that the grain contains.

These five main kinds of sake can be further broken down into two main categories. There are two major factors that help determine the main category of these five kinds of sakes. It is determined by whether or not a neutral distilled spirit, known as the brewer’s alcohol is added during the brewing process and rice polishing ratio (RPR).

When there’s no amount of brewer’s alcohol added in the brewing process, it is called a junmai. Rice polishing is a very careful step done before the brewing process. If you see the word ginjo, it means the rice polishing ratio (RPR) is at least 60%, and daiginjo means rice was polished down to at least 50%. Below is a simple diagram to help you remember. 


Sake Lovers' Guide has helped us simplify the understanding of the different types of sakes into the below chart. Save it and use it the next time you are out looking for your sake!


Stay tuned for our next lesson where we will be talking about how different prefectures (regions in Japan) produce varying and distinct taste profiles in their sakes!

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