What is sake? A guide to Japan’s popular drink

Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice (steamed rice), malted rice and water. There are myriad types of sake, ways to drink and regional tastes. For those of you who are not avid drinkers, we’ve done plenty of research to get you interested and help to get the most out of your next sake experience!

What is sake?

Sake has a long history. According to one legend, the origins go back as far as 2000 years ago. The first sake was produced in Kyushu and western region Kinki, using kuchikami, a primitive method of chewing rice grains in the mouth and waiting for the enzymes to turn starch into glucose, and yeasts transform that glucose into alcohol.

The responsibility was given to shrine maidens who were regarded as holy mediums. Since that time, brewing techniques evolved gradually, adding malted rice in the Nara period, and started to resemble present sake methods.

Japan’s Liquor Tax Act specifies the following requirements for sake:
・Rice as an ingredient
・Includes a process called kosu, separating ingredients from raw materials.

Sake types

Premium sake (sake with a rich taste of malted rice of 15% or more) is classified into the following 8 types depending on the difference between raw material and producing. Too many? Don’t worry. Let us make it super simple.

Ginjo sake

Ginjo sake is made from rice, malted rice and brewed alcohol, at a rice polishing ratio below 60%. The rice polishing ratio is the percentage of rice grain that has been milled away. This leads to the requirement for the unique flavor and color often associated with the style.

Daiginjo sake

Daiginjo sake, like ginjo sake, is made from rice, malted rice and brewed alcohol. The difference from ginjo sake is that the rice polishing rate is less than 50% and extremely good color quality is required. 

Junmai sake

Junmai sake is made from rice and malted rice, and has a good flavor and color. Junmai sake has no specific requirements for the rice polishing rate.

Special junmai sake

Special junmai sake refers to sake made from rice and malted rice with a rice polishing rate of 60% or less or made by a special brewery method. It is necessary to specify the brewery method in order to qualify for a special junmai sake.

Junmai ginjo sake

Junmai ginjo sake is a sake made from rice and malted rice, which is the same as special Junmai Sake, with a rice polishing rate of 60% or less. The requirements for raw materials and rice polishing ratio are the same as those for special junmai sake.

Junmai daiginjo sake

Junmai daiginjo sake, like junmai ginjo sake, is made from rice and malted rice and has a rice polishing rate of 50% or less..

Honjozo sake

Honjozo sake is a sake made from rice, malted rice and brewed alcohol, with a rice polishing rate of 70% or less.

Special honjozo sake

Special honjozo sake is sake made from rice, malted rice, and brewed alcohol, with a rice polishing rate of 60% or less, or a special brewery method.

Summary

When enjoying sake, pay attention not only to the brand, but also to the name on the label, the rice polishing rate, and the ingredients. Knowing your premium sake type and what’s in it makes it even more fun!

In a religious world, sake is also offered to a shrine or the altar making the omiki sake divine. It is believed that a sacred sake possesses a God’s power. Since sake has been renowned in a Japanese culture as a staple beverage, enjoy your travelling in Japan from both the cultural and drinking perspective.