If the thousands of craft sake brands popping up worldwide haven't convinced you yet, you've got to try this time-honored brew! But, requesting a bottle of "sah-kee" in Japan might get you a few confused looks. In English, we use the word "sake" to mean a specific Japanese liquor, but sake or osake (pronounced sah-kay) actually refers to any alcoholic drink. If you want to order like an expert, ask for the Nihonshu.
As versatile as soy sauce, sommeliers and Michelin-starred chefs pair premium sake with delectable dishes, while some salarymen will slug swill and gnash on fried chicken. If you're looking for a top-shelf experience, take the time to get to know a little bit about nihonshu. Read on to find out how it's made, the varieties it comes in, and our top picks for places in Japan to experience sake!
Nihonshu is rice wine with an alcohol content generally between nine and sixteen percent. Your basic sake recipe calls for rice, water, and a yeast starter. It seems easy, but it takes a great deal of technical mastery and intuition to concoct the perfect batch.
The delicate procedure begins with the toji (brewmasters) carefully selecting the choicest sake rice. Depending on the variety, the kernels get milled until only 35-70% of each grain remains. The polished rice then goes through a steaming process. Half of the cooked rice goes into a fermentation tank, and the other half gets a sprinkling of mold.
When you walk through a brewery, the distinct smell of chestnuts tells you that you're in the heart of the sake brewing operation. The mixture of rice and mold creates an essential ingredient called koji. After an incubation period, the koji gets slowly added to the fermenting rice along with yeast starter because rice starches can’t produce sugars.
As the mash ferments over the next 18 to 32 days, the brewers adjust the temperature and other conditions. They might also add ingredients like brewers alcohol or sugar to achieve the correct flavor profile. At the end of the month, the unfermented sake ingredients get filtered out. Then the nihonshu goes through filtration, pasteurization, and maturation depending on the type.
There are so many designations and medleys of nihonshu you're sure to find a variety you like. Here's a quick guide to the main types and tastes for beginners.
Junmai A junmai spirit doesn't use any additives. There can be variations of junmai using specific techniques, but any bottle containing only rice, water, and koji, is considered a junmai. People drink junmai either warm or at room temperature.
Honjozo The rice to make honjozo gets polishes to 70% of the original grain. During fermentation, a small amount of brewers alcohol is added to smooth out the flavor. It has a light taste, and you can drink warm or cold.
Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo If you’re looking for chilled sake, many people prefer the ginjo type for its fruity and complex flavors. Ginjos use rice refined to 60% and specific yeast starters and fermentation techniques. Some batches don’t receive any additives, so they get the name junmai ginjo.
Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo Considered the pinnacle of premium sake, these brews require rice grains milled to 50% and precision. The mastery required to create these makes daiginjo and junmai daiginjo types among the most expensive sake. Serving it cold brings out light yet complex flavors.
Futsushu In Japanese, futusu means "normal," so we might think of this as a table nihonshu. Compared to premium bottles, the rice is barely polished. Most futusushu sake brands use rice that is 70-93% of the original grain. Bars often serve this because it's rather cheap, but many Japanese people stay away from it unless they’re drinking sake cocktails.
Amazake If you don't imbibe or are too young to drink, amazake ("sweet sake") is non-alcoholic sake. In addition to drinking, Japanese cuisine uses amazake as a dessert, natural sweetener, baby food, salad dressing, and more. It’s said to be very nutritious and a great hangover cure.
With all of these varieties, you might wonder how could you possibly choose just one sake to take home? Nihonshu makers and experts agree—you should go to a tasting to find one you like! Just be careful to drink your samplings correctly.
Rule number one of drinking nihonshu: sip, don’t shoot. Traditional sake cups are small and resemble shot glasses. Some drinkers might feel incensed to knock it all back in one gulp, but in doing so, you miss all of the flavors and aromas.
You might also get served an overflowing glass of nihonshu placed inside a square sake cup called a masu with even more nihonshu in it. To drink, sip from the glass until it’s empty, then pour the remaining nihonshu from the masu into the glass. Once you find your favorite type, don't forget to buy some as a souvenir.
At home, store the sake in a dark place that doesn't get warmer than 68°F (20°C). Bottled nihonshu can last as long as two years in these conditions. After opening, keep it in the refrigerator and consume within two to three weeks.
If you want to drink hot sake, heat it slowly with hot water and never use the microwave. The ideal way to warm sake is by placing a decanter of nihonshu in a pot of boiling water. Heating sake can bring out a new flavor profile when done correctly.
To learn more about nihonshu, or to find the top sake in Japan, check out these places!
Otokoyama Sake Brewery
Otoyama has been considered one of the best Japanese sake brands in the world since its founding 340 years ago. In fact, it was the preferred beverage of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Beloved ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Kitagawa Utamaro featured Otoyama nihonshu in his works, which you can see at the brewery’s museum.
Suehiro Sake Brewery
This family-owned brewery continuously wins awards for their spirits in international and domestic competitions. In their shop, you can find Emperor Shōwa’s favorite drink, Gensai Nihonshu. Be sure to stop by their cafe for nihonshu-flavored desserts, or the museum which has the biggest private collection of antique cameras.
Sawanoi Sake Brewery
90 minutes west of central Tokyo, the 200-year-old brewery uses fresh water from the nearby Tama River. Tours are free but require reservations. You can also enjoy tasting all of their products.
Fushimi Sake District
This charming district runs along the Horikawa River in Kyoto. Good Japanese sake needs clean water, and Horikawa River is known for its soft water that bubbles up from underground springs. Among the 40 breweries is the industry giant, Gekkeikan.
Nada Sake District
The Nada district owes its success to more than it’s excellent climate to create the finest ingredients. The brewers banded together and founded the Nadagogo Group to help each other in times of trouble. Nihonshu makers here have been known to come together and save a brewery from bankruptcy, even if they’re business rivals!
Saijo Sake District
The Saijo District has been known for its nihonshu since the Edo Period. Visitors exploring Hiroshima shouldn’t miss the chance to tour through at least one of the many breweries here. On the second weekend of October, you can see the Saijo Nihonshu Festival, which attracts around 200,000 attendees every year.
Aizu Sake Museum
The museum was built inside of an old brewery. Here, you can learn about Aizu’s distinct nihonshu making processes and techniques. You’ll also have the chance to see both ancient and modern tools and machinery so you can compare traditional and current practices.
Ponshukan Sake Museum and Rice Brewery
More than just a museum, you can sample cups of nihonshu made by the leading 95 brands from Niigata Prefecture. Also, you can take a hot spring bath infused with sake or try locally-sourced Koshihikari rice and the area’s specialties.