What is sake?

pixabay / auntmasako

Sake misconceptions – the basics cleared up…

What is sake? Now that’s a big question to answer. There are dozens of specialist websites, books and organizations dedicated to this unique rice-wine. Perhaps you’re interested in picking up a bottle yourself. In this article, we’re only going to dip a toe into the shallow end, and hopefully debunk some common sake misconceptions. Also, I’ll provide some basic information for you about one of Japan’s favorite bottles of booze.

What is sake? Is it a spirit? A wine?

Before we begin, we should get our terminology right. In the Japanese language, the word sake (酒), or o-sake if you’re being polite, actually translates as ‘alcohol’. It refers to any and all alcoholic drinks. Japanese rice-wine, known as sake in the west, is called nihonshu (日本酒) in Japan. Compared to the grape-wine you may enjoy drinking, the process for making rice-wine is actually closer to brewing beer. Although it’s actually more complicated than that. The brewing and manufacturing process is complex enough that it warrants an article in its own right.

Sake misconceptions cleared up – Sake is a Japanese rice-wine, made in a unique brewing process.

Isn’t sake a really alcoholic drink? Is it like any western drinks I know?

There is a myth in the west that sake is exceptionally alcoholic.

The image you probably most strongly associate with sake is that of collapsed, drunk salarymen on trains, clutching gigantic brown or green bottles. Or perhaps you conjure up something more traditional, such as a kimono-clad hostess ceremoniously pouring for clients from small serving bottles into thimble-sized porcelain cups, taking care not to spill a drop. In ukiyo-e art, kabuki, imported movies, television and anime, there’s a certain comical alcoholism associated with it.

Drunk Salaryman
flickr / varmazis
Behold, the drunk salaryman, in his natural state…

Whatever you picture, it’s likely you might imagine that sake is an extremely alcoholic and precious spirit. Something that can only be tolerated in small quantities, like shots of vodka or whisky. Though some students in the west use sake in bizarre cocktails known as sake bombs, it isn’t really a drink that you should shot or throw back in quick succession.

In fact, most sake ranges from 13-17% in terms of alcoholic content after bottling (18-20% if undiluted), not far off the ABV of most western wines. Like with any drink, moderation is the keyword here. If you polish off one or two large bottles in one sitting, you might have a rough time of it. Similarly, if you drink a lot of low-grade, low-quality sake, you’re more likely to have a bad hangover the next morning. Drunk in moderation, and accompanied by food and good company, sake can be a very sophisticated and relaxed beverage to enjoy on a night out (or a night in).

Sake misconceptions cleared up – Sake is not much more alcoholic than most wines. Your experience of it will depend on the quality of the sake, how much you drink and your own metabolism.

What flavour is sake? What should it taste like?

This completely depends on the type of sake. As with grape wine, the flavour can vary drastically dependent on the milling rate, the brewing process and the type of rice used. You can find dry sake, sweet sake, savory sake, and some refreshing sake that practically goes down like water. Thanks to improvements in production methods in the 20th century, higher quality sake such as ginjōshu (吟醸酒) and daiginjōshu (大吟醸酒) can even have fruity qualities, with banana, apple and pear-like aromas and flavours.

Sake misconceptions cleared up – Sake varies a lot in terms of its flavour and aroma.

How should I store sake? Can I store it like wine?

Unlike grape-wine, sake is a drink best enjoyed fresh. If stored properly, some varieties can be held onto for up to two years. Others may require drinking within a few days of purchase. There is a kind of aged sake known as koshu (古酒), but it’s unique enough to warrant an article of its own at a later date.

It’s important for you to know that the biggest killers that will ruin your sake are light, movement and heat. You want to keep your sake upright, in the dark, in a cool place. The best and simplest way for you to store a bottle is to refrigerate it, ideally in a section of the refrigerator that doesn’t vibrate or move often. Not only will this increase the lifespan of the bottle, but it keeps most sake at an ideal, crisp drinking temperature. A second-best option is to store your bottles in a dark, cool place, such as in a cellar or at the back of a cupboard. It’s usually a good idea to wrap your bottles in newspaper or similar, to help block out light.

Sake misconceptions cleared up – Sake is best enjoyed fresh, and you should aim to keep it upright, in a cool dark place.

Should sake be heated up? Is it going to be low quality if it’s heated up?

If you’ve ordered some cheap sake at your local sushi bar, there’s a good chance it was served to you heated, in a small carafe called a tokkuri (徳利), with one or two small porcelain cups called o-choko (お猪口). There’s nothing incorrect about this. It isn’t a misconception that sake is drunk hot. Heated sake is a popular and traditional way to consume certain types of sake in Japan. However, the temperature of served sake can also range from ice-cold to almost boiling-hot. For example, there are more aromatic sake that are best enjoyed chilled with sushi.

Not to mention, heating sake can change the flavour, the aroma and the alcoholic aftertaste of sake. So it’s important that you know which types of sake should be heated and which shouldn’t. For more savory junmaishu (純米酒), with a weak aroma and a strong flavour profile, these can be enjoyed at room temperature as well as heated. For a more aromatic ginjōshu (吟醸酒) or daiginjōshu (大吟醸酒), with a strong aroma and weak flavour profile, it’s better to drink it cold.

Each sake is different and usually comes with recommended instructions for how best to serve. At the end of the day, personal preference also comes into it. Just be aware that there are a few bad eggs out there. Some establishments might try to serve you heated sake to disguise the low quality or strong flavour of a bottle. Or even to use up out-of-date, rotten sake!

Sake misconceptions cleared up – Each sake is unique, and will have recommended serving temperatures.

That’s all the sake misconceptions for now, folks!

Hopefully this article has helped clear up some misconceptions you might have had about trying sake.

Based in the United Kingdom and don’t know where to begin? I do reviews of sake that you can find here in the UK, to get you started on your sake journey.


A Japan-enthusiast from the UK, with a particular interest in history and the language, as well as cycling, writing and rock climbing.