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The bluffer’s guide to Japanese sake – everything you need to know about the alcoholic drink


The bluffer's guide to Japanese sake
Get to know traditional sake, then try today’s premium brands (Picture: Getty)

Sake, Japanese rice wine, is an alcoholic beverage made from rice and water that’s brewed like beer; it’s not a spirit or an actual wine.

Its flavour is dependent on the type of rice, the percentage of rice polish, the koji (a fungus) used and the production process. A good sake, like wine, has good balance and complexity.

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Most of the world’s sake is made in Japan. However, there are sake breweries all over the world – you can find them in Vancouver and San Francisco, for example.

In Japan, there are fewer than 2,000 sake breweries remaining, down from a height of 30,000. Together, they produce over 25,000 different sakes.

For wine drinkers, the main difference you’ll find with sake is that it has little astringency, bitterness or acidity. A good premium sake is light and fragrant with an aromatic and complex finish. Alcohol content can be slightly higher than wine, around 15% ABV.

How is sake made

sake barrels
Sake brewing in barrels (Picture: EatCookExplore.com)

Sake is not made like wine but is actually brewed like a beer.

Seventy varieties of rice can be used to make sake.

The first step is polishing the rice grains to remove the protein and fat on the outside. The rice is then steamed.

Next the koji is added to the steamed rice, to break it down into sugar.

Yeast is then added to start the fermentation process, which converts the sugars to alcohol.

The resulting sake is usually a clear liquid, but some types of sake can be cloudy.

Every element that goes into the production contributes to the flavour and characteristics of the finished product.

More: Food

Understanding sake classification

Premium sake is classified firstly by the percentage of polish of the rice grains.

There are three main quality levels, Daiginjo (50% rice remaining), Ginjo (60% rice remaining) and Honjozo (70% rice remaining), which is the most common everyday sake.

The second classification is the amount of brewer’s alcohol added to the sake to increase its fragrance or flavour. If you see junmai (pure rice) in the name, this means that no alcohol was added. You will see the premium sakes labelled, Junmai Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo and Ginjo.

New sake varieties

The age-old sake market has been disrupted by a new blended product from Heaven Sake, a new Franco-Japanese sake maker.

Their two premium sakes are the product of the blending expertise of a French Champagne master, Regis Camus, and two respected Japanese Sake makers. They have introduced the sake to non-Japanese restaurants as an alternative to wine.

In pursuit of a new clientele, breweries have added new products like sparkling sake and fruit-flavoured sakes.

Many bars in London do great sake cocktails, such as Aqua Kyoto, Hakkasan and Sushi Samba.

How to drink sake

The bluffer's guide to Japanese sake
(Picture: EatCookExplore.com)

Most modern premium sake should be drunk like wine, lightly chilled from wine glasses. It should not be drunk warm as this will destroy the delicate flavours.

Some of the cheaper sakes are better gently heated. Most bottles will indicate if the sakes can be served warm.

Sake’s versatile flavours can be paired with all sorts of cuisine, not just Japanese cuisine. Surprisingly, it goes well with cheese and oysters.

Think of choosing a sake like choosing your wine. If you would like something light and fruity, try a daiginjo or a namazake.

You can buy sake from a specialist retailers, such as the Japan Centre, and online shops.

Where can you try sake in London?

Umu Restaurant

It has one of the largest sake collections in London, with a sake sommelier to guide you. I highly recommend the kaiseki menu with sake matching.


A Japanese restaurant just off Oxford street with a revolving sake menu, served by the glass.

C London

Unusually, this is an Italian restaurant but they have launched a pairing menu with umami rich Italian food and Heaven Sake. It’s surprisingly a great match.

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