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Japan’s drinking culture & the significance of Sake

Sake is known as the traditional beverage of Japan. The relation of sake with ‘the land of rising sun’ started around 2000 years ago. This fermented rice drink also known as nihonshu 日本酒 has nourished and made its way through various aspect of Japan’s culture. In comparison to western culture, Japan’s drinking etiquette is more refined with various factors like the concept of ‘nomikai’ , ‘konpa’, ‘joshikai’ etc. Japanese people love alcoholic beverages and the most amazing highlight of Japan for any one who likes alcohol is – 酒 (although this kanji letter is pronounced as sake it acts as a general term for alcohol) is easily available in supermarkets or convenience stores which function 24/7. Some places also offer a vending machine facility for alcoholic beverages. Over the years, the Japanese range of alcohol developed and introduced many unique products. This article is all about the general categories of alcoholic beverages that are famous and related to Japan. 

What is the national drink of Japan? 

If you thought about ‘sake’ then – You guessed it right! Apart from being the traditional beverage, ‘sake’ is also crowned as Japan’s national drink. Rice, koji mold, clean water and yeast are the foundation which are combined and fermented in a particular procedure. The result is clear to slightly yellowish rice wine with an ABV ranging from 15-17% at times even 22% (although it is stated as wine the procedure inhibits more familiarity towards beer or brewed alcohol). This procedure has been refined over centuries, history recites that back in time sake production involved a gathering where villagers would chew rice and nuts then spit it in a communal tub which was stored and kept to ferment. This is similar to the concept of ‘Kuchikamizake’ (mouth-chewed sake). 

There are two categories of sake – cheap and premium. Cheap sake isn’t very popular nowadays whereas premium sake is gaining popularity worldwide. Premium sake is defined by the degree of polishing the rice. The general requirement of at least 30% of grain is polished away for premium whereas more expensive and luxurious sake considered as the most flavorful ones are based on – 

  1. Ginjo (吟醸) – 40% of grain has been polished away 
  2. Daiginjo (大吟醸) – 50% of grain has been polished away

One more distinction in premium sake is the addition of alcohol done at time to enhance the flavors. Since the addition of alcohol is a time and cost consuming process, premium sake producers add no alcohol or a small amount of alcohol to the sake. It is classified as –

  1. Junmai (純米) – no addition of alcohol to the sake
  2. Honjozo  (本醸造) – A small amount of alcohol added to the sake 

 The types of Sake

  1. Namazake – Also known as raw sake, the pasteurization step usually done in other sake is skipped in namazake’s process. The result is a fresh and flavorful drink that has to be refrigerated and consumed quickly. 
  2. Koshu – Also known as old sake, koshu is aged in barrels or bottles for a long period of time. This gives the sake a completely new flavor profile which consists of earthy or wooden notes.
  3. Nigorizake – Also known as cloudy sake because it is coarsely filtered as compared to other sake. Some rice solids are left due to the filtration method and the flavor ranges from sweet to tart.
  4. Jizake – Local breweries are famous in each category whether it is gin or beer. Similarly, sake produced by local or independent brewers is named as jizake
  5. Amazake – Traditional sweet and low-alcohol Japanese drink usually sold at food stalls during winter festivals.
  6. Futsushu – It does not have a specific recipe and yet it’s considered to be one of the most popular classes of sake. It has an addition of 50% alcohol and is stated as a versatile drink.
  7. Genshu – Also known as the undiluted sake it has an ABV of 17-19%. It is obtained right after the fermentation and the filtration process, fragrant notes and full body describe this sake.
  8. Akaisake – Sake which is prepared by using red yeast rice kōji (紅麹, benikōji), giving the sake a pink-tinted appearance similar to rosé wine.

The serving temperature 

Based on the preference of the drinker, characteristics of the sake and the season – Sake in Japan is served at three temperatures :

  1. chilled (reishu (冷酒)), 
  2. at room temperature (jōon (常温)), 
  3. or heated (atsukan 熱燗),

Sake drinking etiquette

Japanese are fond of their traditions and traditional sentiments related to certain things. Sake faces a similar situation with a basic guide of rules:

  1. Never serve yourself sake both in formal or informal situations. Your companion should pour sake for you and you return the kind gesture by pouring sake for your companion.
  2. A host pours sake for the guest of honour while remaining guests serve each other. This is mostly observed in formal situations. 
  3. When everyone has a full cup only then everybody can start drinking. The host will raise his cup for a toast and say Kanpai “gahn-pie” (cheers), then everyone follows his lead and raises their cup. 
  4. Both hands are used when pouring and drinking. Sake is poured from a tokkuri (carafe) held with two hands, one to hold and pour, the other hand supporting the bottom. The sake is poured into a small cup called an ochoko which is held with both hands. 
  5. The ochoko should be lifted  off the table when someone pours sake for you. 
  6. Sake is meant to be enjoyed slowly rather than gulping it like a vodka shot. If you feel you don’t want to continue drinking leave some sake in your cup otherwise your companion will keep on filling it. 
  7. The most important one – Sake in Japan is called nihonshu. So ask for nihonshu instead of sake which actually is a general term for alcohol.
  8. Last but not the least – Learn how to pronounce sake correctly. 

These etiquettes change from one region to another, but these are the basics once so even after this if you feel you don’t know what’s going follow the lead of your host. 

Some popular Japanese Sake brands

  1. Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 50
  2. Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
  3. Kubota Senju “1000 Lives”
  4. Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai “Drunken Whale”
  5. Nihon Sakari “Gokun” Hanjozo
  6. Kokuryu
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