Understanding Sake Not as complicated

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Understanding Sake 

Not as complicated, 

but more important, 

than you might 



Sake is not distilled.  


It is brewed, similar to beer.  


Sake is not only served hot.  


Premium sake is best served chilled. Hot sake is typically cheap liquid. 


Sake is not only for Japanese food.  


Premium sake pairs incredibly well with a wide range of world cuisines. 


Sake is not only made in Japan. 


Premium sake is made in Japan, the U.S., Australia, and British Columbia.  


Sake is not only for Japanese/Asian 



French, Italian, BBQ, South American restaurants are adding sake.  

Myths To Squash 


Sake is best served in square wooden cups 

or little shot glasses. 


The best vessel for serving sake is a wine glass. The Masu, or square cup, is a 

nice piece of history and tradition but it does nothing for the sake.  


Sake is for dropping into pint of beer. 


Sake bombs are for chugging beer, not enjoying sake. 



Sake is hangover free.  


Sorry but anything with alcohol in it that is consumer in copious amounts is 

going to cause a hangover. Sake just happens to be easier on you.  


Sake is wine.  


Nope, it’s sake. Sake. Sake.  

Myths To Squash 

Saké purists will say that saké is saké. It is not wine or beer. It is it’s own 

unique beverage and deserves it’s own identity. That is certainly true, but 

in a world that is trying to understand saké, it is not easy to be so 

definitive and may not be a good idea.   

Saké is like beer in that it is a brewed beverage made from a grain (rice), 

water and yeast. Unlike beer, or spirits, the grain is not malted to convert 

starch to sugar and no hops are  


The finished beverage is like grape wine and often carries some 

similarities in flavor. While purists would also have you sipping saké 

from traditional o-chokko’s (little shot-like cups), saké, like wine, is best 

experienced from stemware. Any white wine glass will do, however, 

there are saké specific glasses made by such companies as Riedel.  

Is It Beer or Wine? 

Like wine, saké can be bone dry with steely crisp apple 

and pear notes or sweet and fruity carrying tropical and 

stone fruit flavors. Aroma can range from faint citrus to 

deep earthy floral sweet tones.   

Saké is not measured by residual sugar but on a scale that 

measures the density of saké compared to water. This 

scale is called Saké Meter Value (Nihonshu-do for those 

who speak Japanese), or SMV, and is found on most 

labels showing a plus or minus number. The higher the 

positive number the drier the saké. The lower the 

negative number the sweeter the saké. While the SMV 

number provides a glimpse at sweetness it can be 

misleading due to the flavor impact of acid, water 

hardness and temperature. A saké can be rated a +6 but 

taste fruity and somewhat sweet, what you might 

consider a -2. Use the SMV scale as a guide but be sure 

you taste the saké to be sure you know if it is dry and 

crisp or fruity sweet.  


Bone Dry – Fruit Sweet 

Saké should be stored in a cool dark space with little 

temperature fluctuation. Actually, the colder the better down to 

freezing. Cold storing slows the aging process and allows even 

unpasteurized saké to hold up longer.  

Don’t age it in the typical wine cellar and don’t hold it for years 

thinking it may improve. Saké is bottled ready to drink. Saké is 

best enjoyed young and has a 12 – 18 month shelf life if not 

stored cold. At about a year, saké begins to show more rapid 

flavor changes as it gets more earthy and mushroomy in aroma 

and flavor with an increasingly dense body. It’s not going bad 

but is changing from the expected.  

Handling Sake 

American’s, with a brief saké history, are accustomed to it 

served hot in the little pitchers (tokkuris) and cups (o-

chokkos). They are accustomed to drinking it fast, like a 

shot and not really thinking about its flavor. What they 

don’t know, is that their hot saké is bulk, cheap, mass 

produced and if not hot, probably doesn’t taste too good. 

Think bulk, box wine – the cheapest of the jugs. While in 

Japan there are some styles that are wonderful when served 

warm in the winter, very few are available in the states.  

The premium saké of today is best served chilled, not ice 

cold, but chilled. About where you’d serve your Pinot Gris, 

or Sauvignon Blanc (48 – 55 F). As you taste various saké 

start them out cold, then let them warm in the glass and 

taste as it warms. The flavor will change and the ideal point 

for presentation will be clear. Note this and show each saké 

at the temperature you find the most flavor present.  

To Be Hot Or Not To Be Hot 

We’ve already established that the best vessel to sip saké from 

is a wine glass. While we would like to stand firm on that as 

the only way to serve saké, we do understand that many 

restaurants want an authentic vibe to their presentation. For 

that, the Tokkuri (pitcher) and o-chokko (little cup) are the 

best method. For special presentation they may want to 

consider a masu cup (square cup).   

It is important to talk about the serving options with your 

account. Some, like many of the non-Asian restaurants who 

are adding saké, may find the cost of the traditional vessels 

prohibitive to adding sake to their list. They need to know that 

they already have the best drinking vessel for saké; their wine 

glasses. No further investment needed except the saké.  

Serving Sake 

The lack of understanding saké, combined with our penchant to innovate and 

explore, has brought about some interesting concepts like the sakétini and the 

saké bomb. One is viable, the other simply sad from a saké enthusiast’s 


Sakétinis evolved as a means to get Americans to drink saké in any form 

possible. Sakétinis were a tasty and easy option. Some wonderful cocktails were 

created and today we find the nation’s leading mixologists promoting the idea 

due to the lower alcohol, calorie and glucose option. We have found that saké 

adds character (body & flavor) to a cocktail with spirits and when mixed in 

balance with fresh fruit and herbs, the saké flavor becomes a delicious 

component of a cocktail. Properly made sakétinis are about balance and respect 

the nature of saké.  

Dropping a “shot” of saké into a pint of beer (saké bomb) with a ritual of 

chanting is fun for a youthful crowd. It is not, however, about drinking saké – 

more about drinking beer, fast. Some accounts promote saké bombs because 

they are profitable. We’ll not take that away, but promoting responsible, 

appropriate consumption is a priority to moving saké forward in America. 

Drink sake, not bombs.   

To Bomb Or ‘Tini 

Saké Brewing 

A peek into the process of brewing saké. 


Saké is brewed from rice (no other grain) with 

water, yeast and koji being the only other 

ingredients. What makes it very unique in the 

realm of beverage are two things:  


Koji: Aspergillus Oryzae – a mold that is 

applied to the rice grains.  


Multiple Parallel Fermentation: 

Saccharification and fermentation taking 

place at the same time.  


Rice, the foundation of saké, comes in many 

varieties but, like grapes are to wine, only a 

few are good for brewing saké.  

Varieties have been cultivated for centuries 

and today there are about a dozen that are 

highlighted for saké brewing due to their 

hardness (impacts milling), aroma and flavor.  

Regional varieties of rice differ and are the 

source of local pride, allowing a sense of 


It is important to know the variety of rice used 

in the saké you drink but not critical. Back 

labels & brochures are sources of rice clarity. 

Names that you will most commonly see 

include Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, 

Akita Komachi, Miyamanishiki, etc.   


aka Milling 

Once rice is harvested and the hull removed, it is 

up to the brewer to define how much of the grain 

they want polished off. It is here that saké quality 

is measured, by how much of the grain is kept.  

Specialty millers manage the polishing process to 

the exacting standards of the brewer. A key goal is 

to minimize cracking and breakage of the grain 

which will negatively impact the Koji process by 

allowing Koji mold to grow to quickly into the 


Milling/Polishing in another term: Seimaibuai

The Japanese term shows up frequently today so 

don’t be caught off guard. Seimaibuai = Milling/



aka Milling 


Ginjo: At least 


Daiginjo: At least 


Shinpaku: White heart of the grain. 

Junmai, Futsu, Honjozo 

tend be less than 60%. 

There is no required % 

associated with these terms 

Once the rice is polished it must be washed to 

remove all residual flour. 

Next, the rice gets a good soak. The length of 

soaking time is defined by the rice strain and 

water saturation goals. A stopwatch is used to 

be precise in timing down to the millisecond. 

Such precision is necessary to ensure to 

maximized koji growth and penetration into the 


The final step in prepping rice for either Koji or 

straight to brewing, is to steam. This is done at 

about 195° Celsius in either a belt steamer or 

kettle. If in a kettle, the rice is separated from 

the steel with thick cotton cloths and carefully 

layered to allow the steam to find its own path 

allowing for even steaming. A belt steamer 

moves the rice through a flat pressure steamer 

and provides even, steady steam for enhanced 


Washing &  


Once upon a time in a not too distant past, a 

critical step in making saké was to chew the rice 

and spit it into a bucket. This gathered enzymes 

that aided in breaking down the grain. 

Thankfully, that step is no longer needed but the 

process of making koji is still considered the 

most sacred step in production. 

Enter Koji (aspergillus oryzae), a mold that 

grows on the steamed, but cooled, rice and in 

doing so digests it with enzymes that convert 

the starch into sugars.  

Koji spores are applied to the steamed rice 

which is then carefully managed with 

temperature and humidity controls. Slight shifts 

in temperature, length of time, or humidity can 

mean the difference between perfectly fragrant 

and rich yeast food and old smelly sneakers.  

Koji also adds a good deal of flavor to saké. 


Aspergillus Oryzae 

Like beer and wine, saké needs yeast to ferment. It is to 

create food for the yeast that rice is polished, washed, 

steamed and covered with Koji. In doing this we convert 

the hard grain into soft, sweet kernels, perfect for 

consumption by yeast.  

There are about 14 commercial yeast strains available to 

brewers. Each has it’s own aroma and flavor profile and 

interacts with the rice in different ways. Yeast is selected 

for the desired end result.  

Some of the older brewers in Japan also use proprietary 

yeast that has been cultivated at their kura for decades or 

centuries. This provides the kura with uniqueness and 

when combined with local rice and water provides a 

definition of terroir for saké. 


It might seem obvious that water is a necessary 

ingredient since rice has no juice to press out, but it is 

often overlooked. Sake is about 80% water. 

Ideal brewing water is low in minerals with little to 

no iron. Iron will cause saké to darken and create 

undesirable aromas and flavors. It is also known to 

hasten the aging process.  

Manganese interacts with light causing saké to 

become discolored and dampen the overall look and 


Good elements in brewing water include potassium, 

magnesium and phosphoric acid. These aid 

propagation of yeast and development of Koji.  

The flavor of the water is also very important as the 

water used in brewing is also used in diluting sake. A 

majority of all sake is diluted to reduce alcohol and 

mellow flavors.  


The first place that steamed rice, Koji rice, yeast 

and water come together is the moto tank (first 


Here, yeast begins to feed on the sugars and 

starches and the natural processes begin to do 

their thing.  

After a few days, the moto is added to a larger 

brewing tank where more Koji rice, steamed rice 

and water is added as desired.  

The sakémaster’s role now is to carefully manage  

brewing temperature, food and time. A brew that 

is too warm will go to quickly, one that is too 

cool will be slow and could stop short of desired 

alcohol levels. Manipulating temp and time will 

help define flavor and body in the finished saké.  

Moto & 


The Magic Of Multiple  

Parallel Fermentation 

In beer or winemaking, saccharification and 

fermentation are sequential, but in sake, multiple steps 

take place at the same time – 

Multiple & Parallel

This is because the koji rice is in the fermenter at the 

same time as the yeast, both are functioning 

simultaneously. What is magical is that the enzymes 

are slowly releasing sugar to the yeast, which is in turn 

slowly eating the sugar. This natural management 

process allows the yeast to digest sugars over time 

instead of rapidly, therefore allowing alcohol levels to 

be much higher than beer or wine. Saké actually has 

the highest fermented alcohol level of all fermented 


Moto & 


Unless the saké is to be 


the remnants of 

brewing need to be removed.  

As noted, real old school pressing is simply allowing it 

to free run from a hanging cloth sack. This is called 


or free drip.  


is another old traditional style using a 

wood box filled with sacks of saké mash that are 

pressed with weight. There are three phases of this 

style. The first being 


where saké flows 

freely from the sacks. 


” is drawn from the 

first press. And, 


is the last of the saké drawn 

out by hard squeezing to get the last drop. 



 press is a modern machine that pumps the 

saké through screens that catch the sediment and 

clarify the saké. About 90% of all saké is pressed this 

way. Also known as 



For saké, filtration is very much like the fining 

process in winemaking. The heavy bits have been 

removed leaving a fairly clear liquid but retaining 

small bits that can cause the liquid to be hazy. To 

remove this, an optional charcoal filtration is 

implemented. This stage is referred to as 


and is used to strip out particulates and coagulated 

proteins. Filtration may be done multiple times 

depending on the need or desired impact.  This 

process can also remove desirable flavors so it’s use 

is managed carefully.  


is a style of saké that has not been filtered. 

It is often hazy, yellowish and to old ideals it less 

than perfect. To Western standards it may taste richer 

and fruitier compared to it’s filtered version.   


Long before Louis Pasteur “invented” 

pasteurization, Japanese saké brewers were 

heat treating their brews to stabilize them 

and make sure they would not go bad too 


Today, saké is typically pasteurized twice, 

once after filtration and once at bottling. 

Some high-end saké are bottled between 

pasteurizations and then pasteurized in 


This step allows saké to be stored for longer 

periods of time. Without this process it 

would quickly change in flavor and density.  




Variations of the Theme 

Raw, unpasteurized saké is 


(technically speaking it is Hon-

Nama). If stored cold, it can age gracefully 

for several years. At room temperature, it 

changes rapidly and ends up earthy, overly 

nutty and off-tasting. Nama is a dynamic 

style that is often more dense in body, 

fruitier, sweeter and a bit effervescent.  

Nama Chozo 


Nama Zumé 

have had a 

single pasteurization. They can be stable for 

months but are best drunk young.  


Once sake is brewed and pressed it is held 

in large stainless steel tanks until bottling. 

The length of time sake is stored is defined 

by the desired flavor profile.  

Young sake (1-3 months)tends to be more 

fruity, sweet and fresh tasting. Sake with 

some age (4-6 months) begins to balance 

and have a more streamlined profile. 

Additional agng brings out an earthiness 

that is accentuated with hints of 


Various approaches will have sake aging at 

sub freezing temperatures for years at a 

time. This keeps a fresh fruity profile but 

brings in a subtle aged appeal.  

Aging is defined by the desire of flavor and 

body and varies by style, brewery and 



Standard Japanese bottles are 720 ml and 300 ml 

with a large format bottle as a 1.8 L. 

In the U.S., saké is bottled in the standard wine size 

of 750 ml but then it varies with both 300 ml and 

375 ml being offered and some 1.8 L options.  

While there are some standard sizes, saké is also 

found in 180 ml, 200 ml, 500 ml bottles, aseptic 

boxes, large 18 L boxes (mostly for restaurants).  

There is currently a trend in 300 ml bottles both on 

and off-premise as this size helps facilitate 

sampling and allows larger saké lists/sets. 



























Koji, Yeast, 


Steamed Rice 


Koji, Water,  

Steamed Rice 

Added At 

Various Times 

Over 4 Days 


The Flow 

Quick Summary Of Brewing 


Rice is polished to desired amount remaining.  


Rice is washed, soaked and then steamed.  


Koji spores are added to steamed rice and the mold is 

allowed to grow on the grain, converting starch into 



Koji rice, steamed rice, yeast and water are added to a 

moto tank for the first brew.  


A finished moto is added to a larger brewing vessel to 

which more Koji rice, steamed rice and water are added.  


After brewing, the saké is filtered and pasteurized, 

generally twice.  


Bottled and ready to go. 

Regional Diversity  


Diversity of flavor and 

character is often defined by 

region, or more precisely by 

Prefecture. Each Prefecture 

has variation in rice, water, 

climate and yeasts. In many 

cases, Prefecture distinction is 

a source of pride and carries a 

seal of quality like the 

“Niigata OC” which defines 

ingredients and style. It was 

once said that, in general 

terms, saké brewed in the 

North is light and mellow 

while saké in the South is big 

and  hearty. This is a rule of 

thumb and does not always 

hold true.  

US Brewing 

There are currently (Dec. 2009) six saké brewers in the U.S. (4 in 

California) with a majority of production  being focused on the hot 

saké market. The first sake brewpub, Moto-I, opened in Minneapolis in 

2008 and 2011 saw the opening of Texas Sake Company in Austin.  

One Japanese brewer, Takara, has stepped up to produce a more 

diverse portfolio while SakéOne in Oregon began as a premium 

producer of Junmai Ginjo styles. It is from the efforts of SakéOne that 

craft saké, flavor infused saké, Genshu and Nigori styles have been 

elevated to prominent categories. Today, SakéOne’s Momokawa 

Diamond is the leading Junmai Ginjo and Momokawa Pearl the 

leading Nigori Genshu. Their infused Moonstone brand leads its niche 

while G Joy dominates the Genshu category


Storing Sake 

Sake is bottled for consumption, not for aging. Unlike wine, more 

like Scotch.  

However, unlike Scotch, sake does not hold up for a long time in 

the bottle, maybe 12 – 18 months at average room temperature. 

Longer if stored cold.  

So, it is again, beer like. Freshness matters and buying to consume 

within a short amount of time should rule purchasing patterns. 

Should you choose to store it, put it in the fridge. If you put it in 

the cellar with your wine and allow it to age for a few years it may 

be better to simply leave it there. A recent tasting of a 5 year old, 

cellar aged, sake was an unpleasant event. What once once a great 

bottle of sake had gone very bad. A similar tasting of a 10 year old 

sake that was cold stored presented a very pleasant and surprising 


One of the least common things known about sake is that a single 

batch can be managed in dozens of ways to end up with dozens of 

styles. From one Junmai Ginjo could come a Nigori, a Yamahai, 

Shiburitate, Shizuoku, Genshu……It’s simply amazing.  

Sake has 7 categories and from these come thousands of styles.  

Luckily there are a set of core styles to focus on.  

Stylistic Diversity 



Futsu (


): Basic, table sake made quick and cheap. 

Think bulk, industrial box wine.   


Honjozo (


): Sake that contains any amount of 

added spirits. Can be very little as in the case of artisanal 

sake or can be a large quantity as in the case of Futsu.  


Junmai (


): Pure sake, containing only rice, 

water, yeast and koji. Quality and flavors vary greatly. 


Ginjo (


): Sake made from rice that is polished/

milled to at least 60% of its original size. Has added 

spirits in small amounts.  


Junmai Ginjo: Sake made from rice that is polished/

milled to at least 60% of its original size. Nothing added. 



Daiginjo (


): Sake made from rice that is 

polished/milled to at least 50% of its original size. Has 

added spirits in small amounts.  


Junmai Daiginjo: Sake made from rice that is polished/

milled to at least 50% of its original size. Nothing added. 


Ginjo and Daiginjo can be either Honjozo or Junmai. 

A label that does not state “Junmai” is Honjozo which 

is rarely stated on the label.  

Sake Classification 


Basic table saké.  

Cheaply made and 

generally low in quality. 


Saké made from only 

the 4 pure ingredients 

(rice, water, yeast & 

Koji). Nothing else 


Junmai Ginjo 

Junmai made with rice 

polished to at least 

60%. Premium grade. 

Junmai Daiginjo 

Junmai made with rice 

polished to at least 

50%. Ultra Premium. 


Saké with distilled 

alcohol added. Small 

amounts in artisanal 

saké and larger volume 

in cheap options. 


Honjozo made with rice 

polished to at least 

60%. Premium grade. 


Honjozo made with rice 

polished to at least 

50%. Ultra Premium. 

Note that if a name does 

not include “Junmai” 

implies that the saké is 

“Honjozo.” The term 

“Junmai” can only be 

applied to pure saké. 

Stylistic Variation 


Infused: An American addition but slowly showing up 

in Japan. Simply means flavor added whether as raw 

fruit or flavor concentrate.  


Karakuchi: Dry or very dry.  


Genshu: Undiluted. 


Nama: Raw, unpasteurized.  


Nigori: Partially filtered. Literally means “cloudy” 

Stylistic Variation 


Organic: USDA certified organic sake is important in 

today’s marketplace.  


Shizuku: Saké filtered by allowing it to slowly drip from 

cotton bags with no pressure applied. Often found with 



Tanrei: Light clean and crisp style.  


Tokubetsu: Designates a “special” saké. Often made with 

rice milled more than standard.  


Yamahai: Lactic acid is allowed to interact with the yeast 

during fermentation leading to more wild and gamey 


Putting A Name Together 

The sake name is a string of descriptors that define what is in the                                                                                                       

bottle. By understanding the classifications and the main 

styles you can easily know what each saké is. Be careful 

though, not all terms go together like Junmai Honjozo, or 

Shizuku and Funashibori. Can’t have both in one saké. 

Junmai – Ginjo 

– Nigori – Genshu – Yamahai 

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