Sake Spirit Guide
A spirit that defines a nation, sake is a liquor known for its complexity – be that in its intricate production process, its fine and variable flavours, or its long and convoluted history. But as any fan will tell you, getting to know the nuances of this mysterious drink is well worth the time and effort.

''There’s upfront impact, before differing levels of sweetness, bitterness and minor acidity hit the palate. Sake has minimal aroma, but you’ll find hints of nut, caramel and fruit.'' 

Japan has taken to Western alcohols like a drunk duck to water. Despite the country’s first brewery only opening in the 1870s, and their first distillery in the 1920s, the land of the rising sun has come to produce some of the finest and most widely consumed beers and whiskies in the world.
But before they felt the heavy hand of Western influence, Japan knew just one alcohol. Sake.
Revered in the country to this day, Japan’s sake obsession began millennia ago, its backstory being as long and convoluted as the liquid’s intricate production process.
How to make sake
So, like a Japanese rice farmer 2000 years ago, you’d like to make yourself some sake. The first and most important ingredient you’ll need to source is sakamai rice – loaded with starch, it is to sake what grapes are to wine and what grain is to whisky. You’ll need yeast, the reactant that turns these starches into sugars and then into alcohol, and offers up all manner of aromas and flavours. Koji, essentially mouldy rice (although a very particular type of mould), and water are also essential.
Compared to other alcohols, sake production is incredibly complicated. So let’s criminally oversimplify it:
  • Step 1: Grind, wash and steam the rice.
  • Step 2: Use some of the steamed rice to make the koji.
  • Step 3: Mix the remaining rice with the yeast and water, and allow it to ferment.
  • Step 4: Combine the fermented rice, koji, and yet more steamed rice into a main mash.
  • Step 5: Press the mash, before filtering and sterilising the resulting liquid.
  • Step 6: Age your sake, then bottle it.
Despite being known internationally as rice wine, the production process is probably most comparable to beer, although the final product has an alcohol level of 18% - 20% (usually diluted down to 15%).
From the paddy to the palace
The first mention of sake is from 712AD, found in The Kojiki, the first written history of Japan. But with rice cultivation beginning in the country around 300BC, it’s likely that it has been around for far longer. With legends tying the liquid to celestial princes and dragon slaying, the drink is often consumed with great ceremony – gently warmed in decorated porcelain, before being sipped from a special cup called a sakazuki.
Sake plays a key role in many Japanese celebrations and ceremonies. It is drunk as part of Shinto purification rituals, wooden casks are broken at everything from weddings and festivals to election victories and store openings, and farmers who want to chat with gods about the upcoming harvest need only take a sip of Omiki sake. No long-distance charges incurred.
Sake for the senses
What does sake taste like? While its production process might be closest to that of beer, the final product has a flavour profile more like wine. There’s upfront impact, before differing levels of sweetness, bitterness, and minor acidity hit the palate. Sake has minimal aroma, but you’ll find hints of nut, caramel and fruit. It needs to be remembered that while sake is more alcoholic than beer and wine, it is still 80% water, so many people find the first sip far less harsh than they may have been expecting.
Sake can be served chilled, heated or at room temperature, and the manner of serving can have a huge impact on taste. Any sake can be served warm, and this helps bring out flavours and aromas, but top-quality sake is generally best enjoyed chilled.
No prizes will be handed out for guessing which cuisine sake pairs best with.
The sake specialists
Japan understandably rules the sake market, and there’s no need to look elsewhere if you’re in search of a drop. Brands to keep an eye out for include Dewazakura, Yoshinogawa and Tengumai, who offer up accessible yet gorgeous sakes, while the deeper and more complex experiences delivered by brands such as Houraisen and Amanoto make them the go-to options for special treats or celebrations, or for the more experienced player.
If the wealth of Japanese characters and unfamiliar descriptions is making your head spin while you shop, it’s a safe bet to choose a sake from the Nada region, where over one third of Japan’s sake is made.
Sake titbits
  • Australia’s only sake brewery, Sun Masamune, exports 80% of its product to Japan.
  • The term sake is a Japanese word that can apply to any alcoholic drink. The locals actually call sake nihonshu (“Japanese liquor”).
  • In Japan sake must be labelled as seishu (“clear liquor”), despite the fact that this term is rarely (if ever) used in conversation.
  • If you find yourself in the land of the rising sun, it’s important that you never pour your own sake – it is particularly bad manners.