What is sake?

There are few drinks that have such a long history and culture, yet such little knowledge outside of a select audience. Sake, or “Nihonshu” as it is referred to in Japanese, is one of the world’s most unique drinks, yet misconceptions (only served warm, strong in alcohol, it is wine or beer,…) stand in the way of actually understanding what it is, and more importantly, enjoying it.

Sake is a Japanese fermented beverage made using four main ingredients:

Rice: the base ingredient and a source of starch

Water: added during various key stages in the production process

Kojikin: Aspergillus oryzae, a type of fungus whose main function is the conversion of starch to sugar

Yeast: the catalyst for the conversion of sugar to alcohol

What is sake not?

Sake is no spirit – Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage, there is no distillation

Sake is no wine – Grapes contain sugar which is directly converted to alcohol during the fermentation. Rice on the other hand contains starch, which will first need to be converted to sugar.

Sake is no beer – For beer, barley is soaked in water to trigger germination, and malted in a next step to convert starch to sugar. Rice used for sake however, is polished, so there is no germ present.

The categories of sake

It can be quite challenging to look at a bottle of sake and to figure out what you can expect from it, even if the label has been translated! The following pyramid will give you a first introduction to the different categories of premium sake that exist, what they are based on and what you can expect from them. A lot of the words will not make sense yet, that is what the other sections are for.