Saké (pronounced sah-kay) is a clear alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, containing about 16 percent alcohol. In English, saké is translated as “rice wine,” however it is not actually wine since it is not made from grapes. Like beer, it is made from grain and is brewed, and it is not carbonated.
There is an entire culture associated with the making, serving and drinking of saké, which has been a part of Japanese life for hundreds of years as well as an important part of Japanese heritage.
In Japanese, the word “saké” is generally used to describe any alcoholic beverage including saké, whiskey, wine and beer. The Japanese typically refer to saké as nihon-shu “nihon” meaning Japan and “shu” meaning saké or sei-shu which literally means “refined saké.”
Like wine, saké has many different varieties and is evaluated by its quality and grade. There are more than 10,000 different brands of saké that can be distinguished by subtle differences in ingredients and the specific brewing process. There is one type of saké, called amazake, or “sweet saké,” which is non-alcoholic and enjoyed by young and old alike.
About 20 percent of all saké produced is referred to as “special designation saké” or tokutei meishoshi with the remaining 80 percent broadly termed futsuu-shu or “normal saké.”
Each type of saké has a unique flavor profile:
Junmai-shu or "pure rice saké" is made by adding rice to the fermenting mixture without the addition of added starches, sugars or brewer's alcohol. Characterized by the milling process (seimai buai*) in which at least 30 percent of the rice kernel is ground away, Junmai-shu is smooth and full-bodied and typically served warm or at room temperature.
Honjozo-shu (regular brewed saké), is made by adding a small amount of distilled pure alcohol during the brewing process for a slightly lighter and more fragrant flavor. Like junmai-shu, honjozo-shu has been milled to where no more than 70 percent of the original rice kernel remains.
Ginjo-shu (special brewed saké) differs significantly from junmai-shu and honjozo-shu in that 40 percent of the rice kernel is polished away and special yeast is added during the fermentation process which takes place at lower temperatures than the other two. The result is a delicate and light-bodied saké which is typically served chilled or at room temperature.
Daiginjo-shu is ginjo-shu except that the rice has been milled to where no more than 50 percent of the original kernel remains. Daiginjo-shu is then brewed by a painstaking process creating an especially fragrant saké ranging anywhere from dry to sweet.
Namazake is one of the few types of saké that is not pasteurized. It is characterized by a livelier flavor and is one of the most commonly enjoyed sakés on the market today.
Nigori-saké is saké that has not been completely pressed from the fermenting rice solids resulting in a cloudy, creamy, sweet-tasting saké.
Jizake, or locally brewed saké, refers to saké that is made by smaller breweries throughout the country and is typically not mass-produced or marketed nationwide.
Mirin is a sweet cooking wine made from saké that has a low alcohol content.
*Seimai buai is the process by which the outer hull of the rice is ground away to remove any traces of oil, protein and ash that impact the flavor. Generally speaking, the more the rice is milled, the finer the saké.
The Japanese system of etiquette is probably one of the oldest and most complex in the world. This prescribed code of manners governs much of what a person does and how it is done and the serving and imbibing of saké is no exception.
To begin with, when men speak of saké they simply say, “saké.” Women, on the other hand, typically use the honorific “o” prefix designated for things of status or honor such as o-cha for tea or o-kome for rice. So for women, saké is usually referred to as “o-saké.”
In serving saké, the first rule is never to pour saké into one's own cup. Saké is always poured by either a host or hostess, but more commonly, individuals in a group pour saké into each other's cups. When pouring, the flask should be held by one hand at the top with the palm facing down.
The second rule is to always hold the saké cup gently in both hands while it is being filled. Once the saké cup is full, it is polite to bow your head in appreciation, and place the filled cup on the table in front of you. Once everyone's cup has been filled, it is customary to make a toast with a hearty, kanpai then to take a sip. If someone offers to refill another''s cup although it is still full, it is polite to take at least a small sip before the cup is filled again. The best way to communicate that one has had enough to drink is to simply place the full saké cup on the table.
The etiquette governing saké is also commonly applied to all other drinks including beer, soda, juice and tea.
Saké is usually enjoyed with food, and there is a special cuisine popularly served with saké called otsumami. Otsumami consists of many different little dishes of traditional Japanese delicacies. Some are more exotic and strictly seasonal such as spring vegetables, certain fish roe and seaweeds; while sashimi, eda-mame (steamed soy beans) and oshinko (Japanese pickles) are among the more common.
The history of saké in Japan dates back to the fourth century and is steeped in religious and ceremonial tradition.
According to Shinto legend, the emergence of saké is credited to the gods as told in the legend of Susunoomiko. The brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, Susunoomiko saved Princess Kushinada by enticing the Great Serpent of Yamato Lake to drink saké he brewed, and then slew the serpent with his sword.
The first evidence of saké in Japan was a saké-like substance called kuchikami-no-saké or “saké which is chewed in the mouth,” which appeared in the third century. Kuchikami-no-saké was made by chewing the rice or other grain, spitting it out into a container and allowing the enzymes in the saliva to ferment the grain for several days. This form of brewing was one of the early Shinto rituals traditionally performed at religious festivals.
Although saké has evolved greatly since these ancient times, it is still offered to the gods and consumed as part of many Shinto rituals and celebrations including present-day Japanese wedding ceremonies.
More sophisticated brewing techniques came to Japan from China around the seventh century, allowing it to be refined into a clear liquid more like the saké we drink today. During the Heian period (794-1195) saké-brewing techniques continued to improve, and with the emergence of a popular culture, for the first time saké became a social drink. Sophisticated brewing techniques brought from the West during the Meiji period (1868-1912) further advanced the industry, making mass production possible. Today there are more than 10,000 brands of saké on the market.
While saké is best known as a drink, it is also used in cooking, as a polish for pinewood and as a skin conditioner.