What exactly is sake?

If you like sushi, chances are you’ve heard of “sake,” a Japanese alcoholic beverage that is served at most sushi restaurants. In Japanese, sake’s legal name is “Seishu.” “Sake” itself actually means “alcoholic beverage.” But with an alcohol content typically around 16 to 18 percent, sake really is its own kind of drink. Although it’s also known as Japanese rice wine, it’s neither wine, nor distilled spirit. It is a combination of water, fermented rice, yeast and a type of mold known as “koji.” Yes, that’s it, water, rice, yeast and mold. But although it sounds simple, like wine, not all sake is created equally, there are different types and methods of brewing it, and different ways to prepare it and drink it, based on whether it is low grade (think cheap wine) or premium.

The key to sake lies primarily in the rice and how it is milled. Sake is made with polished sake rice. “Polishing” means the rice is stripped of its outer layers or bran, so that its protein and oils can be removed. The rice is washed and steamed before the fermentation process begins. The rice is then combined with the koji, or mold, which helps to break down the rices’ starches and sugar to begin the fermentation process. This mixture is then left to ferment with yeast in vats similar to those used when making beer.


Different types:

While three-quarters of sake produced is regular sake or “futsu-shu,” there are different types, including those that are sweet, dry, sparkling, even aged. Premium sake primarily differs by how the rice is milled or prepared. Some sakes have added alcohol, which can improve the taste and shelf life. Different regions and the local cuisine can dictate how sake is made in that area, and whether alcohol is added or not.


This type of sake is simply pure sake with no added alcohol, starch or sugars. The rice has only been polished by 30%, so minimally milled, making the sake rich and somewhat earthy in flavor. Junmai is often served warm.


This sake is similar to Junmai sake in that has only been polished by 30%. The difference is that brewer’s alcohol is added, which actually makes it less potent, yet heightens its fragrance while offering a smooth flavor. Like Junmai, it is usually served warm.

Junmai-Ginjo and Ginjo

Ginjo is known to be lighter and even floral in flavor. The process of making Ginjo sushi is a bit more involved as the rice is milled more extensively and then it is soaked and fermented in much smaller lots than normal sake. Junmai-Ginjo is made with rice and water and no added alcohol, whereas Ginjo is made with added alcohol. Ginjo can be served slightly cool or warm.

Junmai daiginjo and daiginjo-shu

These are both premium sakes made with highly polished rice. Like Junmai versus Honjozo, Junmai Daiginjo does not contain added alcohol whereas Daiginjo-shu does contain added alcohol. In both cases, the rice is polished at least 50%, sometimes even more. These sakes can be served warm or cool, but are best served slightly cool like white wine.


In this sake, the alcohol is not pasteurized. Any type of sake can be made namazake style. The difference is that this type has to be refrigerated to maintain its flavor and aroma.


This is unfiltered sake, which is cloudy and may still actually have some rice in the bottle. It tastes sweet like a dessert wine.

Other types of sake:

Just like alcohol and wine there are yet other ways to flavor sake.

Akai Sake has a reddish color, which comes from a special type of koji fungus used to make it. 

Infused sake is usually infused with fruit flavors such as apple or berries and it’s good for mixed drinks.

Taru sake refers to sake stored in cedar barrels. It has a woody taste and aroma. 

Sparkling sake has a light and sweet flavor thanks to a second round of fermentation (almost like kombucha)m, which also makes it bubbly. It is not as high in alcohol as other sakes.

How to serve it:

Warm sake: If you are serving sake warm, transfer the sake to a ceramic container, called a tokkuri. Think of the type of container used to serve sake at sushi restaurants. Place the tokkuri in hot water to warm the sake. When you’re ready to drink the sake, pour it into small ceramic cups, also known as choko. These are a bit smaller than an espresso-sized cup and without the handle. Inferior sake is often served warm to mask the flavor.

Cold sake: When serving sake cool, simply pour it straight from the bottle into a glass. You can pour it into a ceramic cup for sipping, a wine glass or any glass or tumbler you would use to drink alcohol. Premium sakes are often served cool, or slightly warmer than refrigerator temperature to allow the flavor to stand out more.

What to eat with sake?

Of course, all types of sushi, sashimi, dumplings and tempura go with sake. Beyond that go for foods that are more salty or savory. Seafood goes particularly well with it. Try chicken or aji tuna with a miso glaze. Braised pork, grilled Kobe beef or marinated rib-eye is particularly good when served with a premium sake.

More facts

  • While sake is predominantly produced in Japan with more than 1500 producers there. There are a handful of producers in Canada and the United States.
  • Because sake was not sought after or understood in the U.S. for many years, Japan simply shipped its low-grade offerings to the U.S. So what we drank in restaurants was not their best foot (or sake) forward.
  • The royalty of sake might just be Kinapaku-iri sake, for one reason, it contains gold flakes. Yet, the gold does nothing to influence the flavor just the cost.
  • It is considered rude in Japan to pour your own sake. Instead everyone at the table should take turns pouring each other’s sake.
  • You’ll also be considered rude if you don’t make a toast before drinking. It’s as simple as saying, “Kanpai!” which means “dry the glass.” But you don’t have to take it literally, sake is supposed to be sipped, not drunk like a shot of alcohol.