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True Sake: What makes a good sake and how is it drunk?

Sake has become increasingly popular throughout the generations since it was first made, but there’s more to this alcoholic fermented rice drink than you might first think. In Japan ‘sake’ is a more general term. The word ‘sake’ is used to refer to all alcoholic drinks, no matter what they’re made from. If you’re looking to refer to the drink in Japanese, try ‘Nihonshu’. It is highly debated where the drink originated from and when, but in early literature – 713 AD – a book mentions an alcoholic beverage that is made from rice which is considered to be the basis for the sake that we drink and enjoy today. Today, the popular Japanese alcoholic beverage has become popular all over the world. More and more of us are enjoying the unique and inimitable taste of sake, with its authentic flavours being truly celebrated on October 1st, the official Sake Day.

How is sake made?

The production of sake can be quite intricate and complex. Sake is believed to have spread throughout Japan during the Nara period, a journey which has resulted in the sake as we know today. The process consists of several stages which all require a high level of skill and artistry that has been handed down through generations.
The rice used to create this traditional Japanese drink is used for brewing purposes only due to the grain being larger, stronger and containing fewer proteins and lipids than other traditional kinds of rice. This more unusual rice contains a starch component in the centre of the grain that is essential for making sake. In order to collect this starch, the rice is passed through a ’polishing’ process where the outer bran is removed, this is to ensure that any ashes and foreign minerals are removed to give a cleaner, more fragrant brew.
After each and every grain of rice has been polished, it is left for around two weeks to cool and absorb some much-needed moisture back from the atmosphere. After the rice has rested, it is washed to remove any dust, and then soaked again to make sure the rice reaches an ideal water content of 30%. The rice is then steamed, though this stage requires extra care. To help make sure that everything goes to plan during the fermentation process, it’s important that the rice isn’t overcooked during the steaming. Once cooled, the rice is taken to the brewery, where starch is converted into sugars ready for fermentation.
In order to allow the special sake mix to ferment, a microorganism spore is sprinkled onto the steamed rice mixture to help marry and bring together all of the intricate flavours. After the fermentation period has ended, a mixture of water and yeast is added to the solution which is then incubated for around 7 days, though the process doesn’t end there. As the mixture ferments and comes together, another pre-incubated mixture of steamed rice, fermented rice and water is added to the mix in three stages to bring the sake up to the highest of quality standards. This last mixture is then left to ferment for another 2-3 weeks to bring the final flavours and fragrances together.
The last stages of the process are focused on ensuring the sake’s exquisite flavour. To do this, the fermented sake mixture is filtered through charcoal, removing any colour or displeasing flavours through a process of pressing and separating the liquid from the rice. Eventually, the sake can go through its last stages, including the pasteurisation, storing, diluting and bottling. Master Brewers take the last maturation stages as an opportunity to fine tune their product. Shortening and lengthening the maturation allows for the perfection of their product by altering things such as the taste, fragrance and character.

How should sake be enjoyed?

When it comes to drinking sake, the process can seem quite complex. An abundance of cups, glasses and bottles accompanied by a variety of tastes, serving sizes and temperatures can appear confusing, but the traditional Japanese drink can be enjoyed however you like. The process of enjoying sake is quite an individual one. There are serving suggestions and recommendations but the serving style that you choose each time will all depend on personal preference. You can drink sake hot or cold, in a cup or from a bottle, paired with food or without; there are endless ways to enjoy the beautiful flavour of this unique, traditional drink.
When it comes to sake customs, however, there is an etiquette that some choose to adopt. In Japan, it is considered good manners to pour a sake serving for your partner, with the youngest at the table usually pouring for the oldest. If someone is pouring sake for you, it is also a custom to hold your cup with one hand and put the other underneath before taking a sip.
At Atelier Japan, we believe that Japanese delicacies such as sake should be enjoyed to the finest of standards. View our collection online to browse our exquisite range of sake cups and bottles that will allow you to enjoy the rich and aromatic taste of one of Japan’s finest drinks.

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Sake: the Traditional Japanese Alcohol

Commonly interpreted as a rice-wine, although made through a brewing process more similar to that of beer, sake (pronounced sa-ke) is a traditional Japanese alcohol that is popular not only amongst Japanese people but has now become a sought-after drink worldwide. There are many different types of sake, as well as plenty of ways of drinking it.

Types of Sake

Although sake is the widely known term for this drink outside of Japan, this actually refers to all alcoholic beverages in Japanese. Nihonshu is the more specific name for the rice-based alcohol, but for this article, we’ll use the colloquialism sake. It is generally accepted that there are six different types of sake in substance. Junmai, literally meaning pure rice, is a sake that has no additions, consisting of water, koji mould, yeast and rice polished to 70%. These ingredients are the general base for the other five types of sake with some variation of rice polishing and/or an addition of distilled alcohol; Honjozo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 70%; Junmai Ginjo with rice polished to 60%; Ginjo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 60%; Junmai Daiginjo, with rice polished to 50%; Daiginjo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 50%. Additionally, these types of sake can also be made in different ways. An example of this is the cloudy sake generally known as Nigori which is produced when the brewer leaves in some of the rice polishings. There are also many variations of sake specifically for celebrations or seasonal purposes.

Sake and Socialising

Sake can be served on many different occasions and at varied venues. Drinking in Japan is essentially a social ritual, often post work or with new business partners as a way of cementing friendships. Sake is also very common at more formal engagements or meals and the more important the event, the greater the quality of sake. An evening usually starts with a nama beeru (draft beer), followed by a clinking of the glasses and saying kanpai before moving onto individual alcohol ha (faction) preference. When drinking sake, it is customary to pour for others, usually your superior, you wouldn’t pour for yourself unless alone. There are also many specific linguistic phrases that refer to the social stages of drinking, such as kyo wa enryo shimasu (I will be abstaining today).
Due to how refined sake can be, it is common to have sake tastings. These tastings are for generally appreciating the specific aromas and fragrances of each sake in company, just like the equivalents of whiskey or wine tasting in Western countries.

History of Sake

Although sake can be traced back in China to 4,000 BCE, it was first produced on a large scale in Japan. Sake was first introduced to Japan in around 300 BCE after the start of rice cultivation. Initially for personal usage by individual communities or families, sake rice soon grew into an agricultural product on a large scale. When production boomed, the largest area was around Nada, close to modern Kobe, and was mostly only for noble families. The Shinto religion had great use for sake, employing it for purification of temples, as offerings to the Gods and in wedding ceremonies as part of a process called san san kudo. Sake was often a staple drink served by geisha in tea houses, poured after the tea and in a delicate and refined way to match the essence of the drink. Sake gained popularity over time and production continued to rise, with cloudy sake being the only version until the seventeenth century. Industrial advancements brought sake onto the market as a much more accessible beverage, making the drink available to the poor too.

How to Drink Sake

Sake can be served hot or chilled, often varying either seasonally or by the particular type, although high-quality sake should not be heated as it can cause loss of flavour and spoil the subtlety of the taste. It is best to store your sake in a cool, dry place and it should not be left long after opening. It is often served from a tokkuru (a porcelain flask) into a traditional sake cup, (sakazuki or choko), or a wine glass if the sake is chilled. Saucer-like cups can also be used for sake in special occasions or rituals.
Again, depending on the variation and strength, you can either sip your sake over time or drink it quickly, though sake is quite potent so you might want to be careful here! With so many different flavours of sake, you might like to choose what food, if any at all, you want to accompany it based on which flavours and ingredients complement each other.

Sake’s Significance on Atelier

On Atelier Japan, we have an exquisite selection of finely crafted traditional sake cups and servers, each with unique and beautiful designs and masterfully crafted by our makers, Kazariya-Ryo and Rokubeygama respectively.