Sake 101 – What is Sake and How to Drink it

Last updated: June 6, 2017 

Japanese sake served with sashimi. What is sake and how to drink sake

Often called “fermented rice wine,” sake (pronounced sa-keh) is an alcoholic beverage originated in Japan and made of rice, water and koji malt. Since the ancient time sake has played a central role in Japanese life and culture, and the knowledge and techniques involved in sake brewing have spread to every corner of the nation. The brewing process is quite complicated and requires some sophisticated skills. This rich brewing tradition is probably one reason why the Japanese love sake so much.

A major characteristic of sake brewing is the use of malt. Made primarily from rice, sake is a beverage brewed using a microorganism called koji and yeast. It has an alcohol content of from 13% to 16%. The quality of water used in sake is also important. Brewers take advantage of the various kinds of natural water available in the regions of Japan to make excellent sake.

Temperature of Sake – Hot or Cold?

Sake is among only few alcoholic beverages in the world that can be heated before being consumed. It can be enjoyed at a wider range of temperatures than other liquors, from 32F (0C) to 131F (55C). The same sake can taste different depending on whether it’s served hot or cold.

In Japanese, there is a nomenclature to describe sake’s various temperatures. Please refer to this page of Japan Sake and Shochu Masters Association for detail. The most common way to serve sake in the United States is to heat it to “hitohada-kan” or body temperature (95-98F/35-37C) while Japanese people prefer “atsukan” at 131F (55C). Cold sake is typically served at 50F (10C) chilled from being refrigerated.

It is generally said that the finer the sake, the more sensitive it is to temperature. However it is best to follow the suggestions of a brewery and/or an expert since there are numerous kinds and features available. The best temperature to serve a particular sake is usually indicated on the label.

How to Serve Sake

types of sake cup and bottle
Sake Drinkware (from left clockwise): masu (wooden cup), glasses, porcelain tokkuri & matching ochokos, and ceramic ochoko

Sake is first poured into a small decanter called “tokkuri”, then served in a smaller cup called “ochoko.” Chilled or room-temperature sake can be poured straight from a bottle into a cup made of such materials as glass, wood, ceramic or lacquer. To be served hot, sake is heated in a ceramic tokkuri.

Although it is best to heat sake in hot water, many (including some Japanese restaurants) use a microwave oven these days. Please refer to this page of Kikusui Sake for step-by-step instructions on hearing sake.

Tokkuri size goes by the traditional Japanese measurement called “go,” which approximates 180 ml (6 oz) per unit. Usually a smaller tokkuri is designed for one go and larger tokkuri for two gos. You can refer to this webpage for comprehensive information on the traditional Japanese measurements for sake.

Sake 101 Series:
*What is Sake and How to Drink it
*Types and Varieties of Sake
*How to Select Sake
*How to Store Sake and When it Expires
*Sake Cocktails and Beyond (coming soon)
*Ways to Master Sake (coming soon)

References:
The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association
SakeExpert.com by JFC International