Japanese sake is one of the most celebrated drinks, besides green tea, that originally came from the Land of the Rising Sun — Japan. It is made from polished rice, which is fermented to develop an alcoholic drink. While fermentation is part of the process, sake is more similar to beer than wine as it also undergoes a distinct brewing process.
Sake At A Glance
This humble oriental drink has gained popularity all over the world because of its fermentation and brewing process, as well as its strength. You see, your beer has approximately 3% to 9% alcohol by/per volume (ABV). If you think that’s already a great deal, sake contains about 18% to 20% ABV for the undiluted kind and about 15% when the mixture is diluted with water prior to the bottling process. So, consider sake as the bigger and tougher sibling of both beer and wine.
Of course, everything is to be expected, especially when we are talking about the national drink of Japan. The culture, the intricate production process, the humility of the packaging, and everything that surrounds sake exudes what Japan is all about.
During ancient times, sake was not created for widespread consumption. It is more of a secluded or well-kept secret that can only be consumed for special occasions and is of a limited quantity. As the process of brewing sake not only takes a long time but is also such an arduous task, you will only have the perfect sake brew after achieving the correct duration of the rice polishing and fermentation process.
Sake has been integral to modern Japanese and Asian culture and media. Promotional advertisements in print or in video commercials for different products often include a cameo of sake at least once because it is one of the symbols of Japanese culture. After-work dinner parties in Japan will always have sake, and even those inexpensive street food shops and cafes serve sake. When we say sake is everywhere and sake is love, we mean it.
Types Of Sake
There are four primary grades of sake, which are daijingo, ginjo, honjozo, and junmai. Junmai is a term that implies that sake is made from pure rice wine without any enhancement or additional alcohol content.
Junmai Daiginjō-shu is the highest quality sake with a rice polishing ratio of below 50% and least 15% Kōji rice content.
Daiginjō-shu is a very special brew that has the highest classified quality of distilled alcohol. This also possesses a rice polishing ratio of below 50% and at least 15% Kōji rice content.
Junmai Ginjō-shu is made from pure rice and is considered to be a special brew, with rice polishing ratio of below 60% and at least 15% Kōji rice content.
Ginjō-shu is another special brew with distilled alcohol content and rice polishing ratio of below 60% and at least 15% Kōji rice content.
The Entire Experience: Sake Cup And Sake Set
As the sake is historically not a casual drink, and it is only accessible during special ceremonies, it is served with special sets that we will be discussing in this chapter — the Japanese sake set and the Japanese sake cup.
Cups for sake
Japanese sake cups include a wide variety of simple and intricate pieces in the style of cups or flasks that are made from wood, ceramic, or glass. They come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, and the way a cup looks also varies from where you are getting your sake. In addition, the artistic effort poured into creating a cup or a sake set is undeniable, and they come in various hand-painted designs to showcase the richness and skill of craftsmanship.
We’ve got a lot of Japanese sake cup types available in the market, but some can only be bought from Japan. Here are just some of them:
Sakazuki is a cup that looks more like a saucer.
Ochoko is a small and cylindrical cup.
Masu is a box-shaped cup made of wood.
The Japanese sake cup you are getting varies per region and supplier. Conventional or commercial cup choices can also be made from medium-grade ceramics, which is cheaper but also more brittle and provides a less authentic experience. Moreover, always check your cup because there are some products, especially the more expensive ones, which should not be placed in the dishwasher to maintain the color and shine of the hand-painted details and prevent the cup from cracking.
There are a lot of cup options in the market, and it completely depends on what you want in a Japanese sake cup. Moreover, while an individual Japanese sake cup can be purchased, we recommend buying the whole sake set, whether you are opting to use all the pieces or just planning to collect them. This is because the individual cup only has a couple of dollars price difference compared to buying an entire sake set. Later, you will find our recommendations, and you will be surprised how much craftsmanship is being poured into the creation of each sake set.
Now, a sake set is a pair of a flask and cup. The flask is usually like a vase — bulbous with an elongated neck to control the flow of the liquid. Some flasks have a cup-shaped mouth for a more controlled flow. Traditionally, they are made from premium-grade ceramic material because of how sake is historically served — in formal ceremonies.
Sake set recommendations
Here are some of our recommendations for Japanese sake sets currently available in the market. Honestly, this can be a beautiful gateway to the Japanese culture, as well as to the appreciation of sake.
Tosnail 5pc Ceramic Sake Set
Tosnail is one of the better options for commercially available sake set products in the market. Made from ceramic material, this microwave and dishwasher safe set is a perfect Japanese sake set for personal use, as a gift, or as a home decoration to add color and style to your living or dining area. This sake set includes the standard sake flask and four pieces of a cup painted with beautiful cherry blossoms.
Set includes 1 sake bottle and 4 cups, packed in box.
Oenophilia Osaka Sake 5pc Set
This beautiful piece of art is one of the more premium sake sets you can find in the market. The package includes one Tokkuri bottle and four ochoko cup variants. It has a pearlescent appeal, as it is made from lovely colors of brown, yellow, and blue, which reflect the tradition and art that exists in Japanese culture.
Your experience with sake will definitely be elevated with the Oenophilia. This Japanese sake set is quite delicate and must only be cleaned by handwashing to preserve the color and luster.
Enjoy your favorite sake with the gorgeous Oenophilia Osaka Sake Set
Kotobuki “Kizuna” Japanese Kanji Calligraphy Sake Set
Proudly made in Japan, this phenomenal and authentic Japanese sake set is a masterpiece, and it is one of our best recommendations for you to enjoy a great serving of sake. A sight to behold, this set is made using a traditional pottery and calligraphy process. This is just a fantastic Japanese sake set to have in your home or office. This Japanese sake set includes one 16 oz bottle and four pieces of Japanese sake cup that comes in different colors.
Comes with one bottle and four cups
Love Me Some Sake: Best Sake
Here are our top recommended sake brands that you can enjoy. They are of the best quality, reasonably priced, and infused with culture and heritage for many generations. These companies know the importance of establishing a very critical set of standards to deliver the best quality sake to those who want to taste the drink for the first time or those who drink it on a regular basis as a favorite alcoholic beverage.
Kokuryu is one of the pioneers in mass-producing premium quality sake — the Daiginjo sake. It is made from koji mold, milled rice, water, and a portion of distilled alcohol. This intricate process, together with the adaptation of the French wine maturation method, leads to the creation of sake that has a mild and gentle aroma, which sets the mood and serves as a good way to start a meal when paired with a salad or light vegetables.
Hakkaisan is a Japanese sake brand that is in a continuous pursuit to elevate the entry level or mainstream level sake into the premium or Ginjo level of sake. Ginjo sake is the high standard of sake, which should be made with about 40% of milled rice and 60% of the remaining ingredients. The standard serving of Hakkaisan offers a sharp yet light flavor that captures the hearts of sake enthusiasts from Japan and all over the world.
If you want an authentic Japanese sake experience poured into your Japanese sake cup without burning a hole in your pocket, try the offerings of Gekkeikan. This company is one of the oldest companies in the world, and we are talking almost 400 years of dedication to quality and passion. Gekkeikan caters both ends of the sake spectrum, from the most affordable ones to the premium grade sake, so there’s definitely something for everyone.
How To Enjoy Your Sake
Unlike other alcoholic beverages, sake is very flexible. It can be served at normal room temperature and can even be served hot, warm, or chilled depending on how to like your sake. It all boils down to personal preference. Sake became very flexible is because its purpose varies depending on the season. For example, in autumn or winter, a warm or hot cup of sake can invigorate the senses. In summer, take a splash of chilled sake to freshen up. This is also the reason why sake cups are made from ceramic material — to sustain the temperature, regardless of whether it is served hot, warm, or chilled.
When drinking alone, there are no particular drinking etiquettes to be followed. The fun begins when the drinking activity involves two or more friends or family members. Whenever the sake is served, you must hold the cup a little bit ahead to receive the serving.
Hold the cup just below the nose and appreciate the aroma. Now, don’t take it in like a shot; rather, take a little sip, let it stay in your mouth for a while, and then swallow. This allows you to enjoy the elements of the sake before taking it in.
If you want to try a warm sake, the flask should be placed in a pan that has boiling water. DO NOT boil sake directly; it is an alcoholic drink to begin with and should be treated as such and not as a culinary ingredient. We have mentioned culinary ingredient because, like wine, sake can be mixed with main courses and even cakes. We’ve been praising this product too much, but its level of flexibility really astounds us.
Some enjoy their sake in its purest form, whereas others get creative and add juices like lemon or even combine it with other liquors. Take heed though, as it can be an overindulgent experience. Remember that juices can mask the actual strength of the drink, and you might consume too much too fast. This is why there is a saying that there’s no such thing as drinking too little sake, because it is very easy to consume and very enjoyable to drink; thus, you will always have the possibility to go overboard.
Compared to wine where the ideal partner is cheese, sake can be paired with almost everything. From simple finger foods, to sushi and other heavier dishes, sake is believed to complement the flavor and overall eating experience. That’s how great this drink is — a literal life of the party no matter how big or intimate it may be.
The legacy of Sake
What we like best about sake is that it is a good conversation starter because of the history and the culture that it carries. We know that wine and beer have their own share of heritage and history, but sake and other drinks from the Orient hold a particular authenticity to them. Thanks to its versatility, making it available and ideal for any season or any occasion, sake holds great potential to be your next favorite drink.
It is very important to know how to respect your drink, especially if you are consuming it in an authentic Japanese restaurant or better yet, in Japan. You are consuming a part of their culture, and it matters that you respect this important piece of culture. Nowadays, sake is manufactured commercially for us to enjoy and appreciate, and in return, we must acknowledge the passion and history embedded in the aroma and in each sip.