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Updated on June 2, 2014 / CC BY 2.0 / CC BY 2.0

Is Sake a Wine or a Liquor?

Sake is a traditional, alcoholic beverage from Japan. It is made from water, rice, koji, lactic acid and yeast. Sake is made by brewing, like an ale, but in flavor and strength is more like a wine. The average alcohol content is around 16%. A little higher than most wines but less than half that of most liquors.

In truth, sake is a generic term, in Japanese, for all alcoholic beverages brewed or distilled from rice. In the west we use it to describe nihonshu 日本酒 which is the brewed wine-like beverage now widely popular in much of the west,

Will I enjoy Sake?

If you enjoy german white wines, such as, peisporter. hock or leibfraumilch you will almost certainly enjoy sake. With over 700 sake breweries in Japan there is a vast range of types of sake to choose from each with their own unique qualities and traditions and sake enthusiasts claim to be able to pair you with a sake you will enjoy. If you live in Los Angeles, San francisco or New York there are specialist stores that will advise you and of course sell you some excellent sake. Here is a link to the two part special on sake produced by Wine Library TV hosted by the irrepresable Gary Veynerchuck and featuring sake expert Beau Timken

koji rice impregnated with the mold Aspergillus Oryzae


Water and rice are familiar to most people,I am sure, but what is koji?!

Koji is the 'starter for the fermentation and consists of rice impregnated with the spores of the mold Aspergillus Oryzae. Koji is used in the production of other Japanese fremented products such as Miso and Tofu.

Rice has been cultivated in Japan for over 2000 years, and is the country’s most important crop. / CC BY-ND 2.0 / CC BY-ND 2.0

The skill of the brewers is critical to the quality of sake / CC BY-ND 2.0 / CC BY-ND 2.0

What makes good Sake?

Sake can be purchased and enjoyed for around $12-14 a bottle but some sake is $500 a bottle. What makes this sake so much more desirable? The answer is three things go into the making of a good sake and affect the quality of the brew.

  • Water - The quality of the water used to make the sake is crucial in the quality of the final outcome. Some sake is are made from snow gathered from the peaks of Japan's mountains.
  • Rice - Specialized sake rice is used in the production of sake. The rice is milled to reduce the amount of husk it contains the husk must be milled thinner without puncturing it or the starch within will be released too quickly causing uneven fermentation. Whether the rice used was milled 90%, 80% or more is considered a measure of quality or Seimaibuai
  • Skill - The skill of the brewers in working the rice during the process of impregnation with koji and the susequent fermentation is critical to the final product.

sake casks on display at a shrine during one of the many Spring festivals / CC BY 2.0 / CC BY 2.0

sake can be enjoyed in these stemless wine glasses preserving some traditional feeling / CC BY 2.0 / CC BY 2.0

Should sake be served warm or cold?

Many people believe that sake is best served warm. In American sushi bars this has become the norm and saki is served in small ceramic jars which are heated to about 45 degrees in warm water. This is not necessary with the finer grades of sake as long as they are no older that 12 months or so. (The approximate best before date for conventional sake). In fact each brand of sake has its own peculiar temperature for optimum enjoyment. Served at room temperature or even chilled like a fine white wine, sake is best enjoyed in a spacious wine glass which allows the delicate flavours and aromas to emerge.

Getting Serious with Sake

For years sake has been regarded as a cultural novelty. Something to accompany japanese food as part of the overall experience. Not any more. Sake is being enjoyed more and more in it own right and the chances are there is a selection of it in your local market and liquor store. With a little self-education and perserverence you will be able to find highly enjoyable sakes at reasonable prices throughout the US

what was your Sake experience like (screenshot of the bottle hugely appreciated)

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      Adib 2 years ago

      Sam. I wanted to tell you how much I eyejnod your book For Fukui's Sake . I lived in Yokosuka for 2 different tours to Japan. My hubby was in the Navy. I had 2 small girls so didn't get to travel as much as I wanted but did go and see a few things. I could see in my mind how Fukui was like then saw your favorite picture from there and it was just like I thought it would be . I really miss not being there now and it has been 20 years since we left. You have many great memories and brought up many of mine while I read the book. Now thoes black rubber centipedes was not one of my favorite subjects. Had one crawl across my neck one night sleeping at home. still shutter. LOL Thank you so very much for writing about my favorite subject. I even shed a couple of tears when I got to the end. Again; thank you, thank you, thank you for writing such a good book. I did go and give a review for the kindle version. I only read books 1 time as there are too many in this world to read but this one will be with me forever and when I want to go back to Japan I will reread it, Over and Over again.

    • organized living profile image

      Adrian Walker 4 years ago from Magnolia, AR

      Thanks Denise! bottoms-up!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Great hub on one of my favorite beverages-served warm for me. I love sake and the photos you have here are great. Makes me want some sake right now, haha.

    • The Blagsmith profile image

      The Blagsmith 6 years ago from Britain

      This hub is very informative and interesting. It has been voted up. I have also added it to my hub Customs and Cultures which examines dietary differences between British and Japanese food. It is under the link 'alcohol' which is the last word.

      Thank you

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      Sake Bar 7 years ago

      On top of being delicious, sake is also very healthy compared to other types of alcohol.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 7 years ago from North Carolina

      I love sake. Have a few stories about me and sake, too.

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      Tomflyer789 7 years ago

      as above tried sake in Japan best stuff is the unfiltered sake taste is out of this world and best of all no ill effects the morning after if too much is consumed unlike the filtered...

    • organized living profile image

      Adrian Walker 8 years ago from Magnolia, AR

      thanks for the props. at least you tried it you can't like everything

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      philip carey 61 8 years ago

      Drank this stuff when I was stationed in Japan. Never did much for me. Like many things Oriental, it's something you have to grow up with to like, in my opinion. Great hub on an unusual topic.