Japanese Sake (お酒): An Ultimate Guide to the Japanese Delicate

If Japanese sake didn’t exist, where would Japanese society be today? Japanese sake, otherwise known in Japan as Nihonshu, is woven into the very fabric that makes Japan, well, Japan.

Drunk first thing on News Years Day, during traditional shinto wedding ceremonies and offered to the gods in ancient rituals, Nihonshu has shaped the history and culture of Japan into what we know it as today. 

In this guide we will cover everything from what Japanese sake is, its history, how it’s made, the different types, how to drink it, all the way to breweries you ought to visit. Follow our blog for more guides on Japanese culture, life in Japan and learning Japanese!

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Tip: Avoid this beginner mistake! Sake in Japanese means alcohol, so saying just sake in Japanese could mean anything from wine to beer or even vodka.

However, Nihonshu (日本酒) directly translates as Japanese alcohol. So when in Japan make sure when you want to refer to Japanese sake, say Nihonshu, it’ll save a lot of confusion! 

For simplicity, in this article, we’ll use both sake and Nihonshu to refer to the Japanese alcohol. 

What is Japanese Sake? 

Japanese sake, or Nihonshu, is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. It involves similar processes to the production of wine and beer, but rather than grapes or barley, the main ingredient is one so prevalent in Japan: rice.

Nihonshu is characteristically light in color, non-carbonated and can be drunk both hot and cold and usually contains between 14 to 16 percent alcohol1

If you’ve only ever tried Nihonshu once or twice, it might be difficult to describe its taste. Compared to wine, Nihonshu is much lighter and far less acidic. Even Nihonshu, said to be high in acidity, will just be enough to make your mouth water rather than be sour to taste.

It can also be sweet however, very few are overly sweet and opposed to sweet, you can also have dry Nihonshu, which means it is without any sweetness. Most Nihonshu is medium-dry with just a subtle hint of sweetness, but is it the umami, savory taste, that is unique to Nihonshu that allows it to be paired with almost any food.

In Japanese izakaya — the Japanese version of pubs — and even at convenience stores, you’ll find a wide range of food to be paired with alcohol. In fact, there’s a word for side dishes that pair nicely with alcohol, called sake no tsumami (酒のつまみ), which can be anything from sashimi (raw fish) to edamame beans to yakitori (fried chicken). 

The History of Japanese Sake 

Until the 8th century

Although the exact origins of Japanese sake is a little ambiguous, most agree that Nihonshu was originally brought over from ancient China around 2500 years ago.

In these texts, they reference residents that would chew on rice and then spit it back out into a communal vat! The saliva would then aid fermentation to give rise to alcohol and the origin of Japanese sake. The brewing process has come a long way since.

It is thought that Nihonshu was at first reserved for the wealthy. They were chilled with ice cubes, being consumed by the emperor and aristocrats in the 8th century.

The 10th century

By the 10th century however, records reveal how Nihonshu is beginning to be incorporated into festivities and events. Today, the  practice of drinking Nihonshu is set during New Year’s Day and at festivals and rituals after it is first offered to the gods.

A divide in the type of Nihonshu can also be seen in these records. Wealthy Japanese people would engorge on clear, refined Nihonshu, and the lower class have more murky, unrefined drinks. 

Kazari-daru (飾り樽) is empty Sake barrels used as decorations in shrines

The 12th century

Between the 12th and the 14th century, as Japan saw the rise of the shogunate, the military government, the brewing of Nihonshu was transferred from the imperial court to shrines and temples.

At this point Nihonshu became a commodity, and brewing methods were refined to increase profit. In fact, the brewing methods that were developed here are similar to the methods used today. 

Nihonshu gradually became more common among the public. Although it was still reserved for special occasions, the wealthy began to enjoy it in small groups or alone and the food served alongside Nihonshu grew in variety.

The 14th – 16th century

Then from the 14th to the 16th century, Nihonshu production saw a steady increase as brewing methods became more efficient and independent breweries with their own trade names popped up. 

After 1603, when Japan was unified as a nation and saw a respite from civil war, Nihonshu production began to really flourish. Star producers began to emerge in Osaka, Itami and Kobe’s Nada.

Rankings, trademarks and brands began to appear which led the government to take control of sake brewing, controlling the supply and pricing of rice. Around this time, technological advancements such as the polishing of rice, known as morohaku, led to the development of Nihonshu curated from white rice.

To further developments, in Itam,  a new practice was also being developed in the brewing process to prevent microbial contamination. And business was booming, Edo, today’s Tokyo, was at this time a very large city, home to over one million people and after work men would gather and drink together.

This resulted in copious amounts of alcohol flowing into Edo. 

In fact sale records show that it was 10 times the amount of today! During this time, Nihonshu also became readily available at restaurants and bars. 

The 20th century

The industry further grew in the 1970’s when Japan experienced economic growth and the invention of the bullet train made travel more accessible and in the 1980’s, as people began to value quality over quantity, companies made Nihonshu with different strains of yeast giving a fruity aroma.

Nihonshu is now enjoyed far and wide, across Japan and internationally with an increasing number of breweries opening up abroad.

Today, sake is still very much a part of Japanese culture, used to celebrate key life events and festivities throughout the year. 

how is japanese sake brewed

How is Japanese Sake Brewed? 

Nihonshu is essentially made through the fermentation of rice in a process known as multiple barrel fermentation, in which rice is converted from a starch to sugar and then from a sugar to alcohol. The rice used for Nihonshu is called sake brewing rice, which is different from the variety that is eaten.

Sake rice is a bigger grain, containing less protein and is stickier and softer. This rice is heavily polished before the brewing process begins and can reduce the grain down to 50 to 70% of its original size. This process is essential to remove most of the protein so you are left with the starchy center good for making sake.

To begin with, rice, kome, is mixed with koji, a fungus, in a process called kome koji. Freshly steamed rice is mixed, traditionally by hand, with the koji and lukewarm water and then covered and incubated until it is crumbly and dry.

Once dry, it is then moved to a vat and mixed again with more rice and water and here it is left to ferment for approximately four weeks with a yeast.

After the four weeks have passed it is called moto, which has an alcoholic content of around 11%. Then more rice, koji and water are added to the vat and another seven days of fermentation begins. After a week is up, it is then filtered, pasteurized and bottled and there you have Nihonshu.

how to drink japanese sake

The Eight Different Types of Japanese Sake 

Although Nihonshu is made with just a few select ingredients, mainly rice, water and koji, the artisans of Nihonshi have made a wide variety to choose from.

When faced with a menu, this choice can feel overwhelming but by knowing a few of the different varieties, you’ll know which flavors to look out for so you can make a more informed decision.

However, these categories by no means dictate the best tasting or the rank of Nihonshu as a lot of factors come into play, even right down to the water source used. 

Officially, Nihonshu can be classed into eight different types depending on the amount of polished rice used. These eight types can be further divided into two categories, the first is called Junmaishu, which means pure rice sake and this is made from just rice, koji and water. 

The second category is called “Honjozo processed sakes”.These have added sugarcane to enhance flavor and aroma. Daiginjo-shu and Ginjo-shu are made with bountiful amounts of rice and are the two most popular “Honjozo processed sakes”.

Volume of Polished Rice (%)Junmaishu (pure rice sake)Honjozo (rice sake with sugarcane)
50 or less Junmai Daiginjo-shu (純米大吟醸酒) Daiginjo-shu (大吟醸酒) 
60 or less Junmai Ginjo-shu (純米吟醸酒) Ginjo-shu (吟醸酒) 
Tokubetsu* Junmai-shu 
Tokubetsu* Honjozo-shu (特別本醸造酒)
70 or lessJunmai-shu (純米酒) Honjozo-shu (本醸造酒) 

*Sometimes made with special production methods. Tokubetsu in Japanese means special or particular.

How to Drink Japanese Sake 

Nihonshu can be served hot, cold and even in what’s called a “spill-over” style where a glass is placed in a square wooden box called a masu and filled to the very top until it spills over. 

You may wonder how to drink from a masu. Well, first you take a few sips until it’s possible to pick up the glass then lift the glass out and wipe any excess alcohol from the bottom.

You can then drink directly from the glass and pour any remaining sake from the masu into the glass. Preferably, you can drink directly from the masu itself and enjoy the aroma of wood. 

Around the world the Japanese are known for their etiquette. When it comes to drinking, there is no exception. Below we will cover some of the manners surrounding drinking Nihonshu

When pouring Nihonshu

If pouring from a traditional sake jug, called an ochoko or sakazuki. Start with a trickle before letting the sake flow out more freely then end again in a trickle.

In other words, try to control the amount of sake flowing out at the beginning and end of the pour so it’s just a little. When you finish pouring, turn the mouth of the bottle towards you to avoid dripping. 

If you are pouring from a jug with a spout, it is polite to turn the spout upwards when pouring so you are not pouring directly from the spout.

The reason behind this is because the spout is called en no kireme (円の切れ目) which is a homophone for cutting ties in Japanese — a bad taboo.

Even some Japanese people don’t know this manner so it’s a great way to impress your Japanese friends! Nihonshu when poured this way is also said to drip down like a jewel making it more pleasing on the eyes. 

When Nihonshu is poured for you

When someone offers to pour you a drink, it is polite to bring your cup up to meet them, holding it with your right hand and supporting it with your left. Also before placing it back down on the table it is good manners to take a sip first. 

Bad Manners to Avoid When Drinking Japanese Sake

1. Taking a peek inside the bottle or shaking the bottle. 

You may be curious to see if there’s any Nihonshu left but it’s bad manners to hold it up to your eye to take a peek or to shake the bottle. 

2. Combining drinks of Nihonshu

Combining drinks even of the same variety can seem rude to the one who made the Nihonshu and it can also affect flavor and temperature. 

3. Pouring to the brim. 

If you want to offer a lot of Nihonshu then it is best done in “spillover” style using a masu box otherwise this can get messy and it’s considered rude to the recipient. 

4. Placing your cup upside down. 

If you are done drinking, it is best to hover your hand over the mouth of your cup when someone offers you a drink and politely refuse. But by turning your cup upside down you can damage the table. 

5. Pouring with your palm upwards. 

When pouring one hand, usually your left, supports the underneath of the jug and the other hand, your right, has a grip on top of the jug and this hand’s palm is face down.

If your right hand is facing up and you are showing the recipient your wrist it is a sign of misfortune in Japanese culture. So make sure you pour with your right hand, on top of the jug with your palm facing down

Must Visit Breweries for Japanese Sake 

Iinuma Honke 

In Shisui City, Chiba, a brewery with over 300 years of history attracts 50,000 people every year. Iinuma Honke they tours teaching the basics behind Nihonshu brewing and you can sample some of their selection.

They are also a vendor so you can purchase and take home any sake that you like in particular. They further hold events where you can participate in the making of Nihonshu. Be sure to check out their website for more details. 

Website: https://www.iinumahonke.co.jp/ 
Address: 106 Mabashi, Shisui-cho, Inba-gun, Chiba Prefecture 
Business hours: One tour a day from 13:30 
Participation fee: Individual (10 people or less) 500 yen / Group (10 people or more) 300 yen 

Application: Advance reservation is required at least 3 business days in advance *Reservations cannot be made on the day. You can make a reservation by phone (043-496-1001) or by email at [email protected]

Ozawa Shuzo 

One hour and 40 minutes from Shinjuku, this brewery on the outskirts of Tokyo is very accessible from the capital. Also just a 10 minute walk away, there is a barbeque place operated by the brewery and if you make a reservation in advance you can have a barbeque without needing to bring anything. 

Website: http://www.sawanoi-sake.com/en 
Address: 2-770 Sawai, Ome City, Tokyo 
Business Hours: Four tours a day from 11:00, 13:00, 14:00 and 15:00 
Participation fee: Free 

Application: There is a capacity of 40 people so consultation is required for groups of 10 or more. You can make a reservation via their website, telephone (0428-78-8210) or at their reception at the store. 

Gekkeikan (Gekkeikan Okura Memorial Hall) 

Gekkeikan is a major sake brewery, founded in 1637, that was a pioneer in introducing science and technology to Nihonshu brewing. They are particularly well known for their release of bottled Nihonshi that does not use preservatives.

There is also a museum where you can see traditional brewing tools that were once used and bottles and posters from the Meiji and Taisho eras and of course there is an opportunity to taste their Nihonshu

Website: https://www.gekkeikan.co.jp/english/kyotofushimi/index.html 
Address: 247 Minamihamacho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture
Business hours: 9:30-16:30 
Participation fee: 300 yen / Children 100 yen 

Application: Reservation by phone is required for groups of 15 or more, or if you wish to visit Gekkeikan Sake Kobo. (TEL: 075-623-2040)


Besides anime and manga, more foreigners are coming to Japan over their love of sake. Learning Japanese can be valuable for people who appreciate sake, and if you are interested in Japanese culture, Coto Academy could be an excellent place to start.

With online or in-person courses available in Tokyo or Yokohama, Coto Academy offers flexible options to help you deepen your knowledge of Japanese language, traditions, and sports.

So, whether you’re a sake enthusiast or just curious about Japan, why not explore the world of Japanese language and culture with Coto Academy?

How is Japanese sake made?

Japanese sake is made from rice, koji (microbes) and water, through a process called fermentation, where the starch from rice is turned into sugar and then to alcohol. 

Is Japanese sake alcohol?

Yes, Japanese sake usually has an alcohol content of 14 to 16%.

Where can I buy Japanese sake?

Japanese sake can be purchased from specialized Nihonshu stores in Japan or liquor stores where you’ll find the best deals and of course, in supermarkets. Also many breweries sell their products onsite. 

1. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2023). Sake. Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/sake [Last Accessed on 2023/3/1] 
2. Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (2023). The History of Japanese Sake. Available at: https://japansake.or.jp/sake/en/basic/japanese-sake-history/ [Last Accessed on 2023/2/28]
3. Gunma PrefecturalIndustrial Economics DepartmentRegional Enterprise Support Division. What is Sake? Gunma Sake. Available at: https://sake.pref.gunma.jp/en/about.html [Last Accessed on 2023/3/1] 
4. Kyushu Tourism Information (2018). The Manners, Customs and Common Ways of Drinking Sake. Available at: https://www.welcomekyushu.jp/kampai/en/special/special04 [Last Accessed on 2023/3/1]

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