Sake Declassified ~ Part One

When you pick up a bottle of sake, you’ll generally be confronted with a label covered in unfamiliar characters, which can all be rather intimidating for anyone who doesn’t read Japanese (and oftentimes even for those who do). Even if you are lucky enough to find some English characters, odds are that you’re not going to find them very enlightening.

At the very least, if you manage to spot either 清酒 (”seishu”) or 日本酒 (“nihonshu”) somewhere on the bottle (usually in one of the corners on the back label) then you can at least rest assured that what you are holding is in fact “sake”, or “rice wine”. 

For the Sake of Clarity

So you’ve found one of these terms on the label, but what do they mean, and what’s the difference between them?

清酒 seishu Seishu is the legal designation for sake under the Japanese liquor tax system. Translating as “clear liquor”, it stipulates only that the contents have been made from rice and then pressed before bottling. Unless you’re out drinking with some Japanese accountants, it’s unlikely you’ll come across this word in conversation though.

日本酒 nihonshu — The word “sake” may be synonymous with Japanese rice wine in much of the world, but in Japanese it actually refers to alcoholic beverages as a whole. As such, the term “nihonshu” was coined during the Meiji period in order to differentiate local “sake” from foreign imports, such as beer, wine, and whisky. It’s no surprise, then, that the word “nihonshu” literally means “Japanese liquor”.

All the Ingredients for Success

We’ve steered you toward the right bottle so far, but what exactly does it hold inside? While the term “rice wine” has long gone out of favour among sake enthusiasts, it does convey at least a few essential truths, perhaps most importantly that this is a fermented beverage, not a spirit — despite its strangely fearsome reputation. In other respects, sake exhibits more in common with beer, so to form a better idea of exactly what it is, let’s start with ingredients:

お水 o-mizu — Unless you’re talking about overproof spirits, more than half of your favourite alcoholic beverage is going to be made up of water, and yet this vital ingredient is quite often overlooked and underappreciated. Not so among sake producers, who regularly go to great lengths to explain the history and provenance of their wells and aquifers. Making up roughly 80% of the final content of the bottle — not to mention many more hundreds of litres used in the washing and steaming processes prior to brewing — it’s no surprise that factors such as purity, temperature, and the presence of desirable trace elements and minerals are matters of professional pride to many breweries. Little wonder that the use of the honorific form also reflects the reverence with which this vital ingredient is treated within shinto beliefs as well.

お米 o-kome — Rice is to sake what grapes are to wine, with a similarly staggering range of varieties and diversity in flavours. With all the energy required to power the brew contained in these small grains, rice is the foundation of sake-making, and another primary element in the shinto beliefs that inform much of the Japanese attitudes toward nature and its produce. While modern storage techniques allow mass-produced sake to be made and released all year round, many breweries continue to allow the yearly cycle of the harvest to dictate the ebb and flow of the sake-brewing process and annual vintages. As such, rice renders sake something of a hybrid between wine and beer traditions, at least in terms of its production.

酵母 kobo — Without yeast there would be no alcohol, whether it be wine, beer, spirits, or sake. These tireless and voracious little workers are the vital element that turn sugars into that unique arrangement of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that has captivated and beguiled humankind since the dawn of civilisation. Not surprisingly, for a class of organism that is found virtually everywhere on earth, there is a huge diversity in strains of yeast that can be used in sake-making, with many endemic to specific regions in Japan. Many have been catalogued and are widely available to all sake brewers, while others are peculiar to specific breweries (perhaps even evolving into unique forms within the breweries over the centuries), and are granted proprietary status.

Breaking the Mold

So far we’ve focused on some of the elements and ingredients that sake has in common with other beverages, particular wine and beer, but there is one area where “rice wine” is distinct, not just from these, but from virtually anything else. For beverages that use fruit, honey, or vegetables as their base ingredient, fermentation can occur spontaneously, as air-borne yeasts consume the sugars and convert them into alcohol. For those that make use of grains such as barley and wheat, malting is required to convert starches into sugars before the yeast can do their work. In this respect rice is similar, but the solution employed by sake-makers for centuries is anything but. This is where our final ingredient comes in:

麹 koji — rather than employ a linear progression through the stages from grain to malt to brewing, as you would with beer or grain-based spirits, sake-makers rely on a microscopic tag-team between the yeast we have already looked at and a kind of endemic mold, known as 米麹 (“kome koji”) or “rice koji”. After washing and steaming rice, a portion is laid out on trays within the brewery and dusted with the spores of 麹菌 (“koji-kin”), referring to the mold itself. Having invaded the rice grains, the mold begins to gradually digest the starches and proteins, converting them into sugars. The resulting 麹米 (“koji-mai”) or “koji rice” forms both the base ingredient in 甘酒 (“amazake”), or non-alcoholic “sweet sake”, and the nutrition for alcohol-producing yeast in sake-making.

A Delicate Balance

Unlike winemaking or beer brewing, wherein the critical fermentation period represents a distinct stage, the processes of using koji to convert starches into sugars and then yeast to convert those sugars into alcohol occur simultaneously. This steady feed through the supply line between original rice and resulting sake has certain benefits, such as reducing spoilage of volatile compounds or the production of undesirable byproducts, while also presenting an immense challenge to the brewers. The threat of a stalled fermentation is one that producers of any alcoholic beverage are accustomed to, but in sake making these risks are multiplied by its unique process of “multiple simultaneous fermentations”, meaning that sake makers have to operate on very little sleep during the critical phases of brewing. No wonder that so many insist on it being an art, rather than a craft.



So that rounds out the first part in our introduction to sake, letting you what to look for on the outside of the bottle and what you’ll find inside. Now polish off that glass, charge it up again, and let’s delve into the world of sake grading in Sake Declassified ~ Part Two!