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Sake: Japanese Rice Wine

Rice, Water, and the Preparation Process

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Sake is the general term referring to alcoholic drinks in Japan. Nihonshu is what Japanese sake is called in Japan. It is a fermented beverage made from rice, the staple food grain for the country, and abundant soft water. The process for making sake has been refined from ancient times, when the serving of nihonshu was limited to the ruling classes. Gradually from the Kamakura period, around the 13th century, nihonshu started to be enjoyed by regular citizens as well. By the Momoyama period or the end of the 16th century, it had continued to grow in popularity, albeit slowly. In the 15th and 16th centuries when rivalries between regional warlords had heightened, sake making techniques were disseminated across Japan, underlying the many unique varieties of jizake, or locally brewed sake.

Nihonshu is such an integral part of Japanese lifestyle and food culture that labeling requirements are specified exclusively by Japan, including what terms and volume units are to be used and what items are to be included on the labels. At the turn of the 21st century, nihonshu has become more familiar and is enjoyed worldwide, chiefly due to the soaring popularity of Japanese cuisine. Therefore, sake labels, both their descriptions and designs, are changing to better communicate with consumers from all over the world. Nihonshu is a distinctive, well-crafted beverage with many varieties to be enjoyed and explored.

Making of Nihonshu

The making of nihonshu involves a so-called multiple and parallel fermentation process where steamed rice added with a particular mold (called koji) is first converted into sugar, and then that sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast known as kobo. A range of variables bring out various complex flavors and quality differences, such as the type of rice used, the degree to which the rice is polished, the types of kobo incubated with and added to koji and a yeast starter (called shubo), water quality, and overall process control. Traditionally, sake-making is controlled by a chief brewer called a toji with his masterful experiences and rich sensibility. In recent years, however, more breweries have been using advanced production technology to achieve their intended sake quality.


Nihonshu is classified into different types, namely, ginjo, daiginjo, junmai, honjozo, and so on, depending on the proportion of polished rice used and whether or not distilled brewer’s alcohol is added.

In recent years, by increasing the overall proportion of polished rice, many breweries have focused on making daiginjo, a super-premium grade of sake signified by its aromatic flavour. However, quite a few people favour junmai for its subdued smoothness and dry flavor, which they say is a characteristic of nihonshu. More diverse sake choices may be offered in the future, as it gains more fans around the world.

Serving Temperature 

Nihonshu is served in a broad temperature range. Drinking heated sake is called kan, which is preferred during the colder seasons. Now increasingly common is reishu or cold sake, which is served chilled in the summer. Either way, temperature must be adjusted by placing a sake server in hot water or immersing a bottle in ice: without adding hot water or ice directly to the nihonshu. Some kinds of nihonshu are more often served at room temperature in order to appreciate their distinct texture.


The highly aromatic daiginjo is better served in a glass so that one can enjoy its flavour by pouring it from the rim. Many of the commonly used nihonshu receptacles in Japan are earthenware, porcelain and lacquerware and these are ideal for junmai varieties. Sake with a dry flavour or rich presence in the mouth is better served in a small sake cup called an ochoko or its larger and deeper counterpart called a guinomi. Its fine palate, visual delight, atmosphere, and the feeling of the serving vessel to the touch all contribute to the drinking culture of sake.

Sake and Ceremony

Traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies have a ritual known as san san kudo, which literally means 'three-times-three exchange'. Sake is poured into a small, a medium, and a large lacquered cup which are stacked on top of each other. The bride takes three sips, the groom then takes three sips, followed by three more sips by the bride from the cups. The ritual is intended to bind the couple, their families and relatives. Furthermore, in a drinking banquet where intangible yet intimate communication takes place, the host and their guests pour sake for each other. These courtesies and formalities at drinking scenes in contemporary Japan have been shaped in this historical context.

Izakaya, Aka-chochin (red lantern), and Tachinomi (stand-and-drink)

Drinking helps people to be frank about what is on their minds and more intimate with friends and colleagues, or to get to know more about unseen personal inner characters. Eateries serving sake naturally originated to provide a place that served familiar food alongside sake. For Japan and its drinking culture, the typical places are known as izakaya (Japanese-style tavern), aka-chochin (a bar hanging red lantern outside), or tachinomi (stand-and-drink bars). Casual eateries like these offer an authentic insight into Japanese culture and offer a culinary experience rather different from a ryoutei, a traditional Japanese restaurant serving a full-course meal.



Masuichi-ichimura Sake Brewery, Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Ishimoto Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Hakkaisan Brewery Co., Ltd., Shinya Shirasu (contributing sake receptacles), Kyotaro Hayashi (photographing San San Kudo), Kazuhiko Ota (advising on Izakaya), Kagiya, Mimasuya, and Nihon Saisei Sakaba