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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.