The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Sake (酒; pronounced "SAH-KEH" [IPA: ] in Japanese, but often "SAH-ki" by English speakers) is a Japanese alcoholic beverage, brewed from rice.

In Japan, the word simply means alcoholic beverage, and regionally, it can take on more specific meanings. In Southern Kyushu, sake means potato shochu (imo-jochu 芋焼酎), a distilled beverage. shōchu is distilled spirits. In Okinawa, it means sugar cane shochu. On the other hand Okinawa also makes awamori (泡盛), literally "bubble top", or kūsū, literally "old beverage". This is distilled sake made from long-grain rice and kurokōji (黒麹). The rice wine known in the west as "sake" is called nihonshu (日本酒) "Japanese alcohol" in Japanese.

The Chinese character 酒 is used with the same meaning (alcohol) in Chinese, and is pronounced '.



The history of sake can be traced back to the 3rd century in Japan. The first sake was called kuchikami no sake, (口噛み酒) or "chewing-in-the-mouth sake," and was made by an entire village chewing rice, chestnuts, millet, acorn and spitting the mixture into a tub, allowing it to mould. Then the mouldy mixture was combined with freshly cooked grain and allowed to ferment. The resulting fermentation produced a much stronger alcohol content than simple fermentation, as higher levels of starch digesting enzymes (especially amylase) in the mould allowed more sugars to be available to the yeast (This method was used also by American Natives; see cauim, and pulque). Chinese millet wine, xǐao mǐ jǐu (小米酒), made the same way, is mentioned in inscriptions from the 14th century BC as being offered to the gods in religious rituals. Later, from approximately the 8th century BC, rice wine, mǐ jǐu (米酒) with a formula almost exactly like that of the later Japanese sake, became popular in China.

Centuries later, chewing was rendered unnecessary by the discovery of koji-kin (麹;菌 Aspergillus oryzae), a mold whose enzymes convert the starch in the rice to sugar, which is also used to make amazake, miso, natto, and soy sauce. This inoculated rice is called "kome-koji" (米麹), or malt rice. A yeast, shubo (酒母), is then added to convert the sugar to ethanol. This development greatly increased the sake's alcohol content; as starch is converted to sugar then alcohol in one instantaneous process, unusually high alcohol levels (18%-25% by vol.) can be obtained from yeasts with low alcohol-level ratings. World War II also altered the recipe, when rice shortages forced brewers to develop new ways to increase their yields. By government decree, pure alcohol and glucose were added to small quantities of rice mash, increasing the yield by as much as four times. 95% of today's sake is made using this technique, left over from the war years, though connoisseurs say that the best sake is still made with just rice, kome-koji, and water.


There are four basic types of sake, created by slightly varying the ingredients.

  • junmai-shu, (純米酒 literally "pure rice wine") made from rice only, only 30% of rice polished away, with no alcohol added
  • ginjo-shu, (吟醸酒) from rice polished 30-50%
  • daiginjo-shu, (大吟醸酒) rice polished 50-70% away
  • honjozo-shu, (本醸造)with a slight amount of distilled alcohol added, the most popular, and any of above the can be
  • genshu, (原酒) undiluted sake, most has been mixed
  • futsuu-shu, (普通酒) any sake not in those guidelines
  • kuroshu, (黒酒) sake using unpolished rice, more like the Chinese
  • seishu, (清酒) the official name for sake
  • kasu, (粕) the sake lees left after filtering, used for making tsukemono
  • seimai-buai, (精米歩合) the scale used to rate sake from sweet to dry

By varying the brewing process, many different types of sake can be created. Sake that has not been pasteurized is referred to as namazake or kizake(生酒), is best served chilled, and may be made with any of the above ingredients. The classic home-brew style of sake is called doburoku (濁酒) and is traditionally a cloudy milky color, as the most delicious flavors are found in the white residue. "Doburoku" is created by adding steamed rice at the end of fermentation, starting a second fermentation and raising the alcohol level. It is also unpasteurized. By creating a starter-culture of micro-organisms, a higher-quality brew is possible, called boutique sakes, or "nigorizake" (濁り酒). The starter-culture, called "moto" (元)is stored at 5-10C, allowing the lactic acid micro-organisms to become dominant in the culture. Lactic acid is important to flavor and preventing un-wanted infections. Subsequently, the addition of moromi (諸味) is added at three separate stages. The moromi is just the kōji, rice, and water. Initiating a brew with a starter-culture, and the subsequent batches of moromi also increases the alcohol levels slightly.

Serving sake

In Japan sake is served cold, warm or hot, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake and the season. Typically, hot sake is consumed in winter and cold sake is consumed in summer. It is said that the alcohol in warm or hot sake is absorbed by the body more quickly, so drinking sake warm was popular during and after World War II to mask the roughness of the flavor due to difficulty of obtaining ingredients. Sake is one of the few alcoholic beverages that is regularly consumed hot.

The most common way to serve sake in the United States is to heat it to body temperature (100F/40C), but professional sake tasters prefer room temperature, and chilled sake (50F/10C) is growing in popularity.

Sake is served in shallow cups, called choko. Usually sake is poured into the choko from ceramic flasks called tokkuri. Other, more ceremonial cups, used most commonly at weddings and other special occasions, are called sakazaki. The influx of premium sakes has inspired Riedel, the Australian wine glass company, to create a footed glass specifically for premium sakes such as Ginjo and Daiginjo. Drinking from someone else's sake cup is considered a sign of friendship, or to honour someone of lower status.

As with other alcohol in Japan, sake is poured with the palm of the hand facing down and the back of the hand facing up, particularly when it is poured for another person. Pouring with the palm of the hand facing up is considered rude and is likely to elicit surprise and disapproval.

Ritual uses

Sake is often drunk as part of Shinto purification rituals (compare with the use of red wine in the Catholic Eucharist). During World War II, Kamikaze pilots drank sake prior to carrying out their missions. Today barrels of sake are broken open during Shinto festivals and ceremonies or following sports victories: this sake (called iwai-zake, literally "celebration sake") is served freely to all to spread good fortune. Sake is also served during the light meal eaten during some tea ceremonies.

See also

Last updated: 05-06-2005 08:51:41
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04