How to Drink Japanese Sake
The alcoholic beverage you can drink hot or cold
Sake is a very traditional Japanese alcoholic drink. I don't drink alcohol, but my Japanese father-in-law always enjoyed his sake so I've seen it close up a few times! Made from rice in a process that more closely resembles brewing beer than making wine, sake can be enjoyed either hot or cold, and some traditions even involve drinking it from a (small) box! So, how do you like your sake?
How do you Serve Sake?
Sake can be served in a wide variety of containers: There is the cup or "ochoko", the saucer or "sakazuki," and the box or "masu." And, it can be served hot or cold.
Wait a minute, this doesn't sound much like drinking wine does it! Isn't sake a kind of wine made from rice? Perhaps there's more to it!
Sake is Made from Rice
Sake Seller, Japan, c.1868 - by Felice A. Beato at AllPosters.com
Sake is made from rice, but the process is quite complex and not as simple as is implied by the term "rice wine," which is often used in English to refer to sake. The first sake was "mouth-chewed sake" which sounds quite unpleasant! It means that they chewed the rice and spat it into a pot where the enzymes in the saliva caused it to convert to sugar and ferment.
After a while they figured out how to make it in a more "public" way from rice, water, and a kind of mold that causes the rice to ferment. Soon sake became the dominant alcoholic beverage in Japan, and sake breweries multiplied everywhere with a wide variety of types being produced. Here we can see sake was available for purchase even on the street.
Sake is Traditional in Japan
Sake has historically not been the kind of alcoholic beverage used just for getting drunk and riotous partying. In fact, sake is served to everyone including children, although the children do get a watered down version with a lower alcohol content. That's not to say the Japanese don't enjoy a fair amount of drunkenness with their sake though!
However, sake has also been part of the religious life in Japanese culture. In fact, in the Heian period (794 to 1185) sake was used for religious ceremony and people seldom drank it at any other time. So the shrines usually have a good collection of sake barrels, and probably traditionally garbed men to take care of it!
If you Want to Know More about Sake
For anyone who wants to know more about Japan's national beverage, this book includes a detailed explanation of the sake brewing process and the different types of sake, and how each is unique. It also contains reviews of over 100 sake brands, and has pictures of sake labels for easy identification.
Written by John Gauntner, and American living in Japan, "The Sake Handbook" is a perfect introduction to the history, brewing, and merits of the many varieties of sake.
Sake is Used in Religious Ceremonies
Bride in Traditional Wedding Costume Sipping Sake as Part of Ceremony - by John Dominis at AllPosters.com
The Japanese Shinto religion used sake for purification rituals, like a kind of "holy wine" like that used in Christianity for Communion as well as other faiths. Even today sake is still consumed as part of Shinto rituals. Here we can see the bride drinking sake (from a saucer type cup) as part of the traditional wedding ceremony. Love that hat!
So How do you Drink Sake?
First off, sake can be served heated or chilled. This kind of depends on the quality of the sake - the good stuff gets served cold, the cheaper less fancy stuff gets heated! But also chilled sake is popular in hot weather and heated sake in the cold winter.
As seen in the picture above of the bride drinking sake at her wedding, ceremonial drinks of sake are usually served in the saucer-style cups.
When you drink sake heated, it is usually served in little cups after being heated in special ceramic flasks.
Another Great Book about Sake
"The Insider's Guide to Sake" is written by a British expatriate (well that sounds good!) who has spent more than seven years brewing sake in the traditional method in Japan, so he really knows what he's talking about. It's also written in an easy to read, quite witty style, so the reader can learn all the history and complexities of this drink in a concise, easy-to-follow text.
The book details the history of sake and explains its numerous varieties. It also includes an extensive list of restaurants and stores in Japan, Europe, and the United States where sake can be obtained.
Serving Hot Sake Video
Here's a lovely lady introducing the proper way to serve heated sake! She does remind us that the polite host should not serve their own sake but only serve their guests. Hopefully a guest then picks up the flask and serves the host!
Now if you're ready to serve some sake, here's a lovely traditional Japanese patterned sake set.
For a more Modern Approach to Drinking Sake
This is a great book that introduces sake not just as a traditional Japanese drink, although it covers all the history and cultural aspects too, but puts it in a more modern context. With lists of places in the United States to find each type of sake (the author owns a sake store in San Francisco), recipes for sake cocktails, and explanations of which types of food go well with sake (including pizza!) its really a useful book. It even includes a section on planning and hosting a sake-tasting party if you really want to impress your friends with your knowledge of sake!
A great contemporary look at a traditional drink, "Sake A Modern Guide" captures 1,000 years of culture and updates it for the contemporary world.
And if you're into contemporary style for your sake, here's a lovely contemporary styled sake set.
A third way that sake is drunk is in boxes! These are special boxes, originally used for measuring rice. Sake is made from rice so that's appropriate.
According to my husband, in the old days when a Japanese man was about to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) he would drink a box of sake and then sit on the empty box. This ensured that he fell forward when he died, much more honorable (and nicer for the spectators not to see all the blood!).
These are traditional "masu," boxes for drinking sake.
It appears that the simple boxes may leak. These lacquered boxes solve that problem, and look good!
© 2010 Jennifer P Tanabe