Sake has always been an important aspect of Japanese people’s lives, not only as a recreational drink, but also as an offering to the gods and a symbolic component of ceremonies.

There are about 1,400 sake breweries in Japan and rice is grown across the archipelago, producing a multitude of flavor combinations that manifest in junmai (made with only rice and water) sake. With the aroma of rice prominent in junmai sake, it is recommended to try sake from various areas and breweries.

Today, sake, together with the washoku (traditional Japanese food) boom, is getting more and more worldwide attention.

Fall foliage at Kitain Temple in Kawagoe.
Sugitama, a large ball made of green cedar branches that gradually turn brown, can be seen hanging at some breweries to announce the arrival of the first sake of the year.
River boating and autumn leaves along the Nagatoro Valley on the Arakawa River.
Koji-kin (a type of mold) is added to steamed rice, and then incubated as part of the sake brewing process.
Source: 1989 Japan National Tax Agency Announcement No. 8 “Sake Production Quality Indication Standards” Overview

How sake is brewed

Sake is a brewed beverage, more similar to beer and wine than spirits such as shōchū made from sweet potatoes and whiskey. Some call sake rice wine, but sake is actually a fermented-grain beverage akin to beer, and it does not age well — unlike wine made from grapes. The alcohol content is around 15 to 16 percent on average, slightly higher than standard wine.

Although sake ingredients are simple, the scent, flavor, aftertaste, clarity and color are diverse depending on the types of rice, water and tools used, as well as production methods and storage condition factors such as temperature.

There are a number of rice production areas and brands in Japan that can influence the flavor of the resulting brew. Each rice variety differs in sweetness, taste and aroma; geography is a major factor in this. Abundant water sources produce different levels of water softness, minerals and other components, further distinguishing the diverse characteristics of each sake depending on where the rice is grown.

Another feature sake is categorized by is whether a roughly 15-proof distilled alcohol is added or not. One of the purposes of adding distilled alcohol is to stabilize the mixture’s quality by controlling its bacterial growth. In addition to this, the aroma of sake tends to dissolve better in higher-proof alcohols — adding distilled alcohol to moromi (fermenting mash of unrefined sake) before squeezing the liquid out helps bring out the fruity fragrance of the moromi.

The extent to which a sake’s individual rice grains are polished is another process that determines quality.

One of the benefits of polishing the rice down is that it cuts down on excessive sweetness and acidity, as there is a lot of fat and protein in the outer layer of rice grains; the distilled alcohol also adds to the exceptionally clean and refreshing taste.

In daiginjo sake, the rice grains are polished down by 50 percent, the highest polishing rate, before brewers transition into the fermentation process.

For another variety of similar quality, junmai daiginjo is essentially daiginjo without the addition of distilled alcohol — junmai is the overall category of sake with no distilled alcohol added.

Junmai sake fans typically prefer a deep aroma. Thanks to the simplicity of ingredients, this type of sake is characterized by its rich scent of rice.

Sake can be enjoyed all year round and served warm or cold depending on the type.

Sake brewing season

In most cases, sake brewing season is between November and March, and freshly squeezed sake (shinshu) starts to appear on the market from around January or February. A light and fresh aroma is characteristic of shinshu that has not undergone the process of hiire (heat sterilization).

On the day that the first sake of the year is squeezed, some breweries still hang sugitama — a large ball made of green cedar branches — to announce its arrival. The gradual fading of the sugitama from green to brown indicates how much time the sake has spent fermenting.

Once summer arrives, unpasteurized sake known as namazake has a more mature flavor profile than what is typically served in spring.

Autumn is the season for hiyaoroshi — a type of sake that has gone through the hiire process once to preserve its quality during summer and is stored in tanks until it is sold from September to November. Hiyaoroshi is milder and richer than shinshu.

Sake can also be enjoyed warm, but it’s important to note that not every type of sake should be heated up. Brews made from less-polished rice grains are generally more suited for kanzake (warmed sake) because the fat and protein contained in the outer layer of white rice creates a stronger taste, and the warming process makes it taste milder while allowing the richer aroma to stand out. The lighter and crisper scent of sake made from highly polished rice grains, especially those with added distilled alcohol, tends to change or disappear when the sake is warmed.

Diverse selections of sake are available throughout the year at liquor shops and izakaya bars. However, sake can taste different depending on the time of year. There are seasonal characteristics in sake that influence the flavor; as some eat with the seasons, drinking with them is another way to further appreciate the world of sake.

Some varieties of sake pair well with certain washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) dishes.

Washoku pairings

Additionally, people can enjoy the marriage between washoku, which was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013 — with an abundance of seasonal materials for each dish — and a variety of different sake to choose from. Be it sushi, sashimi or shabu-shabu (hot pot dish), there is bound to be a type of sake that each person will be happy with to accompany each dish.

With an abundance of sake types and factors behind each brew, there are seemingly infinite combinations out there to try. Granted, daiginjo is generally lauded as the best the world of sake has to offer, but other varieties should not be counted out; the true joy is arguably discovering a sake that appeals to one’s personal tastes.