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How to Drink Japanese Sake

Updated on October 23, 2014
Rustic Green Square Sake Set
Rustic Green Square Sake Set | Source

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?

Rustic Green Square Sake Set from

Sake cup, saucer, and box
Sake cup, saucer, and box | Source

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

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

Men in Traditional Clothing in front of Sake Barrels - by Robert Harding at

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.

The Sake Handbook: All the information you need to become a Sake Expert!
The Sake Handbook: All the information you need to become a Sake Expert!

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

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!

Traditional style

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!

Sake:  A Modern Guide
Sake: A Modern Guide

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.


Contemporary Style

M.V. Trading MBQ7BLV Japanese Square Style Five Piece Sake Set, Blue Color (12-Ounces Bottle / 2-Ounces Cups)
M.V. Trading MBQ7BLV Japanese Square Style Five Piece Sake Set, Blue Color (12-Ounces Bottle / 2-Ounces Cups)

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!).

Happy Sales HSSC-4WD02 2 1/2" Masu Large Wooden Sake Cup (4 Pack), Natural
Happy Sales HSSC-4WD02 2 1/2" Masu Large Wooden Sake Cup (4 Pack), Natural

These are traditional "masu," boxes for drinking sake.


Lacquered boxes

4 pack of Masu Fuku Lacquer Sake Cup Large 3 "x 3 "
4 pack of Masu Fuku Lacquer Sake Cup Large 3 "x 3 "

It appears that the simple boxes may leak. These lacquered boxes solve that problem, and look good!


© 2010 Jennifer P Tanabe

How do you like your Sake? Hot or cold, in a cup or a box! What's your preference?

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    • thesoulofjapan lm profile image

      thesoulofjapan lm 4 years ago

      Metallic guinomi seems to be what's popular in Japan now. Anything on that?

    • Bill Armstrong profile image

      Bill Armstrong 5 years ago from Valencia, California

      Greta lens, any chance of advising best Sake on market, a few samples would be appreciated

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 5 years ago

      I've never tried sake, but now if I ever do, I'll be a bit more educated about it.

    • marigoldina profile image

      Heather B 5 years ago

      I personally don't enjoy sake, but I can see how it could appeal to some. Great lens!

    • Tom Maybrier profile image

      Tom Maybrier 5 years ago

      Mmmm, I love sake! My favorite is nigori, extra cold!

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 5 years ago from Land of Aloha

      I LOVE most of the Japanese sake bottles.

    • SaikoNinja profile image

      SaikoNinja 5 years ago from ???????Fuji Japan

      I linked this lens. Love me some Sah-keh! especially Kubota from Niigata!

    • profile image

      blanckj 5 years ago

      I tried sake for the first time a couple years ago and it was delicious. Thanks for sharing this lens.

    • profile image

      GastroStu 5 years ago

      I much prefer it hot, but to be honest I'll drink it anyway lol. Good lens.

    • profile image

      TravelingRae 6 years ago

      A few weeks ago, I had sake for the first time. It was hot and absolutely delicious. I've been missing out on something special. Great lens, thumbs up.

    • mellex lm profile image

      mellex lm 6 years ago from Australia

      I prefer it hot! I loved this lens - a great topic!!

    • Bluesssman profile image

      Bluesssman 6 years ago

      I like my sake hot in a cup!

    • profile image

      ZazzleEnchante 6 years ago

      Interesting lens! Informative and well researched. Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • profile image

      ZazzleEnchante 6 years ago

      Interesting lens! Informative and well researched. Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 6 years ago

      Ah? How do I like IT? ... sock it to me SAKE! I like IT HOT.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 7 years ago from United States

      I don't drink alcoholic beverages either, but my brother in law is Japanese and I am sure he would appreciate either of these beautiful sets featured here. You know, I have never ask him if he drinks sake, but I suspect he probably does.

    • JenOfChicago LM profile image

      JenOfChicago LM 7 years ago

      Hot in a cup, in the winter! Blessed by a squidangel

    • Rachel Field profile image

      Rachel Field 7 years ago

      Such a beautiful lens. My partner had a bottle of Sake once but I don't know what happened to it - it never got drunk!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      What a unique topic, and so beautifully-presented. I have never tried Sake but at least I know more about it now.

    • KOrazem profile image

      Seeking Pearls 7 years ago from Pueblo West

      How interesting. I have only had Sake once.... many years ago and it was served hot. It seemed powerfully strong I might add. We drank it in tiny glasses sort of like the Contemporary Style Red and Black Sake Set that you showcased above. Enjoyed reading all about Sake.