One of the small delights of travel is that no matter where in the world you head, good spirits can always be found, despite any and all communication or cultural barriers. These universal points of joy are usually in abundance with good spirits, or liquid libations if we want to be sticklers for definitions. Finding yourself situated among a good time is as simple as surrounding yourself with likeminded revelers — be it loved ones or newly found friends — and savoring the region’s specialty wares: Rum in the Caribbean. Scotch whisky in Scotland. Tequila in Mexico. Bourbon in Kentucky. Champagne in France. Chianti in Italy. There’s a whole world of decadent beverages out there to enjoy, but no list of good times is complete without the sake of Japan.
First things first: Saying sake is a rice wine is a misnomer — it’s actually more akin to beer, but even that is glossing over its uniqueness in the world of alcoholic beverages. And in Japan, saying sake just means alcohol; “nihonshu” is what America refers to as sake.
Sake does indeed start out as rice, but not just any rice will do — specific sake rice is key. This rice grain is larger, stronger and typically has less protein and lipid than regular rice — making it unpleasant to eat. Japan sports approximately 80 types of sake rice, with three varieties (yamadanishiki, gohyakumangoku and miyamanishiki) generally proving to be the most popular.
Whichever rice is used, and whatever you decide to refer to sake as, the resulting liquid is divine. Boasting an ABV anywhere from 15% to 20% with just a fifth of the acidity of wine, the texture and flavor of sake is equal parts subtle and complex.
Buckle up, it’s a process. First, the rice is polished: That large grain is milled away until only some portion of the starchy core remains. The more rice that is used and the more it is polished, the cleaner and more elegant the flavor of the final product. For reading the measurement of rice polishing on a menu, just know that if the rice-polishing ratio says 60%, that means 60% of the grain remains and 40% was polished away. Typically, 50% is the most polished you’ll encounter.
Once polished, the rice is ready to be thoroughly washed, soaked and steamed. Note that this isn’t steamed as you would dinner rice a la grain in boiling water, but rather done by letting steam dance up through the bottom of a vat of rice. Also, the amount of soaking is dependent on how much the rice was polished — the slightest variation creates a vastly different-tasting beverage.
After the rice is properly prepped, the Tōji (master brewer) will then inoculate a portion of the rice with koji spores. This might sound odd, but ask any Tōji — this is the heart and soul of a good bottle of sake. Koji is a mold that helps convert the rice’s starch into sugar, which will ultimately turn to alcohol. The koji-covered rice is reintroduced to the steamed rice with a generous helping of yeast and water, and the fermentation is on its way. Depending on the brewery, you can expect multiple helpings of rice — both steamed white and koji-covered — to be fed into the vat during this period.
To boil it down to a single point, sake is different from other alcohol because the koji is fermenting the rice simultaneously as the yeast is fermenting the koji-produced sugar. This process can last anywhere from 25 days to three months, depending on the brewery and type of sake being made. Finally, the resulting rice mash is pressed, bottled and stored away in a cold place, ready to be enjoyed once it matures.
This is all a significantly broad brushing-over of how sake is made: Entire books have been written on this centuries-old craft, and we didn’t touch on many of the more minute possibilities and variables. But it’s safe to say significant thought and care has gone into any bottle that you enjoy!
As with any centuries-old delicacy integrally entwined to a country, there are traditions that have come to be tied to it. However, knowing what is tradition and what is fable can make all the difference when sharing in a new experience.
Sake does not have to be served hot — any temperature will do. Temperature influences the taste of the sake, so the warmer it is, the drier the flavor. Ultimately, the temperature should be influenced by the food you’re enjoying. Hot sake (or joukan) is best with dishes that have lots of oil or fat. Warm sake (nurukan) is best with cold food like sushi. And finally, cold sake (reishu) is best with dishes that tickle the taste buds — either slightly sweet or slightly sour.
Historically, sake was served in the quintessential small ceramic cups and the accompanying ceramic flask. This glassware proved critical for the tradition of spilling sake, as a means of showcasing the host’s generosity. Today, as sake is more prevalent in global markets and finds itself within specialty cocktails, just about any glassware will do — but when in Japan, if you’re visiting a sake brewery, keep an eye out for whether the host spills sake while pouring.
And finally, the most important part: Serving sake. It’s considered rude to pour your own sake, often thought of as the unspoken way of saying you don’t trust the host to take care of you. Sake drinking has almost always been rooted in friendship, so relying on a friend to keep your cup topped off (and vice versa) is critical to letting the good times flow.
Is your curiosity tickled by the prospect of trying an authentic sake experience? Japan is closer than you think — especially with the help of our travel agents. Not only are they overflowing with travel tips and insights, but also their professional relationships with the leading names in travel often translate to luxuriously well-rounded vacations. Enjoying exclusive perks and amenities with Norwegian Cruise Line is certainly sumptuous, but relishing in any of their many excursions — such as an exclusive behind-the-scenes-tour to the Umegae Sake Brewery — adds a richness to your getaway that’s difficult to adequately summarize.