About Sake - FAQ

1. What is sake?

Sake, the national beverage of Japan, is in a class entirely its own. Sake is made of just three ingredients: Rice, water, and yeast. Each ingredient is all the more important due to tradition calling for zero additives. Made from fermented rice, it’s not a wine, beer, or spirit. Highly polished rice is brewed in a process as fascinating as it is laborious. The polishing removes unnecessary outer layers of the grain, which gets rinsed, soaked, steamed, and then fermented with koji (a special type of mold), a malt and yeast. From the resultant mash, the sediment is separated from the sake, which is then filtered, pasteurized, and stored.

2. What does sake taste like?

Sake has a unique flavor, but like white wine has acidity and clarity. Many people don’t realize how wide varieties of sake there are, ranging from sweet to dry, mild to rich, and earthy to tangy. Some sakes are clear and some are cloudy, some are aged and some are sparkling; crafted like fine champagne. In the beverage world, sake is among the richest in umami, containing far more umami-imparting amino acids than beer or wine. These acids come from broken-down proteins found in the outer layers of the rice grains, which means that sake with less-polished rice, such as junmai, will present the umami flavor. Daiginjo sake, on the other hand, made from highly polished rice, has a sharp, crisp, sweet taste.

3. How to drink sake?

One of the sake’s most unique characteristics is its wide range of serving temperatures. Sake can be served chilled (Hiya-zake), semi-frozen (Mizore-zake), at room temperature (jo-on), or warmed (Kan-zake). How to decide which is your favorite? Take your cues from the sake, the setting, the dish pairing, or just go with your individual preference. Traditionally, sake is consumed in small cups, called “Ochoco,” which is similar to shot glasses. A more recent trend is to serve sake in wine glasses in order to enhance the flavor and aroma. In fact, ceramic, glass, metal, or even wooden cups, along with the shape of the vessel, will affect the flavor of the sake, making it mellower or sharper, enhancing or dampening the aroma.

4. What is the alcohol content of sake?

Sake has an alcohol content of about 15% or 16% ABV. Relative to other alcoholic drinks, it’s higher than beer (5%) and hard seltzer (generally 4-5%), roughly the same as wine (15%), and lower than whiskey, vodka, and tequila (40%).

5. How is sake made?

Sake rice is first polished to remove the husk, eliminating off flavors. The polished rice is then washed, soaked, and steamed to facilitate koji growth. This mash is then sprinkled with koji, then transferred to a tank. Yeast is then added to form a fermentation starter. Fermentation is subsequently encouraged with the addition of more mash. This mash is then pressed to separate the sake from the byproduct before the sake is finally stored. Depending on the type of sake, the sake may be pasteurized, set aside for aging in casks or barrels, or bottled directly.

6. What is rice polishing and why is it so important in Sake?

The amount of rice husk milled away is represented as a percentage, called seimai buai, usually indicating the amount of husk polished away, rather than what remains; so, a polish ratio of 70% typically indicates that only 30% of each individual rice grain goes into making the sake in question.

Sake categories are often determined by their seimai buai. For example, a daiginjo is characterized as having a 50% or less polish ratio.

Sake rice is milled to discard off flavors produced by proteins, fats and starches contained in the husk and the rice grain’s outer layers. Keeping some of these compounds isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and can provide extra flavor to the finished sake, but leaving too much is generally considered undesirable, as these flavors can tend to present as too strong.

High polish sake usually features aromatic and floral flavor profiles, with more subdued rice flavor coming through. On the whole, sake made with high polish rice have more clarity of flavor, better aroma and are overall smoother than low polish sake.

Low polish sake can be delicious in their own right, so part of a brewer’s job is to carefully consider the polish ratio and ensure that the rice is polished to the correct degree without cracking – a process that can take a lifetime to master.

7. What types of rice are used in Sake?

Not just any rice will do for sake, however. There is a distinct difference between “table” rice meant for meals and sake rice. As one of the three main ingredients in sake, rice has a substantial impact on flavor and sake rice is carefully cultivated by growers throughout Japan and even in some places abroad.

Yamada Nishiki
It is sometimes called the “King” of sake rice. Grown in Hyogo, as well as Fukuoka, Tokushima and Okayama, this okute rice is often used to make the more delicate styles of premium sake, especially daiginjo. Yamada Nishiki absorbs water and dissolves relatively easily, and its soft grains require great care in polishing.

It is the second-most widely used sake rice in Japan. This wase rice is grown along the northwestern coast, especially around Niigata, where it was discovered in 1938. Its large inner core is almost pure starch, and it yields light-bodied sake with a fresh, clean taste, but the giant core prevents a high level of polishing.

Miyama Nishiki
It is also a wase rice. It grows well in cold weather and produces rich sake with strong rice flavors. It’s grown in Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi, Fukushima and Nagano, often at higher altitudes.

It is grown in Okayama and is one of the few strains of sake rice that is still “pure.” While not a result of cross-breeding itself, this okute rice has been used for that purpose to such an extent that it’s a genetic parent of 60% of all sake rice. It was popular as a table rice in the Meiji Era, but when production became more industrialized Omachi was found to be too difficult to harvest by machine. By the 1920s it had dropped off the scene completely, not returning until the 1980s. Sake made with Omachi rice have an earthy taste that reveals a variety of subtle flavors within.

Koshi Tanrei
It is the “child” of Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku, and a perfect example of terroir in sake brewing. With Niigata’s cool climate, Yamada Nishiki had to be imported from other prefectures. Niigata’s brewers wanted a local sakamai that would offer a similar flavor profile or even something richer. And although Gohyakumangoku is a Niigata sakamai, its small grains make it is more likely to crack during the polishing process. Finally released in 2004, Koshi Tanrei has inherited all of its parents’ strongest features and none of the negatives. When the first Koshi Tanrei sake hit the market in 2007, made by local brewers, it won plenty of awards at the Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyokai (National New Sake Championships).

8. What are the different types of Sake?

There are numerous styles of sake, many of which are categorized based on their milling ratio, but there are many other factors contributing to each sake’s class. Otherwise, some sake is categorized based on whether or not brewers’ alcohol is added, whether the sake is aged, or whether or not it’s pasteurized.

Junmai could be considered the base sake from which all other sake is compared. Quite literally, its name translates to “pure sake,” and it’s characterized as being made with strictly koji, rice and water. Its flavor and aromas are extremely rice-forward, and junmai can be enjoyed at a variety of drinking temperatures.

Honjozo is sake made with added brewers’ alcohol, and is typically milled to 70% or less. The amount of brewers’ alcohol added must amount to 10% or less of the total weight of rice used in the brewing process. Honjozo is a dry sake and is best enjoyed chilled.

Ginjo is another sake that incorporates brewers’ alcohol. It’s polished to 60% or less and is often made with the “ginjo-zukuri” fermentation method, in which the sake is fermented at low temperatures over long periods of time. It features an inviting fruity aroma and is best enjoyed at about 50°F.

There are plenty of other styles of sake, each with their own definitions. Sometimes, these definitions can be loose and somewhat confusing, so drinkers wanting to explore the full range of sake flavors are encouraged to inquire with their nearest brewer or specialty store.

9. How do you determine the quality of sake?

Because there are so many different styles of sake, the best sake is often a matter of personal taste. However, the quality and therefore the price of sake is largely driven by the polish rate of the rice that the sake is made of, as well as a variety of other factors like the quality and rarity of the water used to make it and, of course, the attention to detail paid by the brewers themselves. The best sake brewers pride themselves on their work and dedicate untold hours to making the best batches. This makes sense because the more the rice is polished the more work it is and the smaller the rice yield so more rice is needed to make the same amount of sake.

10. What do the Sake Hundred product names mean?

The name "BYAKKO" of BYAKKO BESPOKE, SAKE HUNDRED's flagship sake, represents our dedication to the highest quality. Its name translates to “Hundred Light” and is a vow to light up your life for one hundred years or more. Byakko welcomes you into a world of unprecedented sake clarity.

11. Are Sake Hundred products the same as other products at that brewery?

expressions of each brewery’s signature styles. This collaboration has led to very new types of sake, created by brewers with generations of experience.

12. How can I learn more about sake?

The educational English-language website Sake Times is a one-stop shop for all things sake. It contains all manner of information for sake drinkers in all stages of their sake journey. Its handy glossary is a good place to start for the sake curious, while its brewer and store features are a great place to find your next sake source.