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Sake Basics

10 Aug 2022
Sushi Daily Secrets

To the unknowing, the world of sake can be just as bewildering as the world of fine wine. It’s a creation of delicate balance, involving centuries of cultivation and generations of experience.

Before we start, here’s what you really need to know first: sake is made by fermenting special sake-brewing rice with koji mould (acting as the yeast) which grows on rice. The flavour of the finished product changes depending on certain variables such as how much the rice grain has been polished, and whether additional alcohol has been added.

How it all started

The precise origin of sake is unknown because it is so old that it predates recorded history, but it is believed to have originated in China as much as 3000+ years ago.

When wet rice cultivation practices were introduced to Japan around 300 BC it took a few hundred years before kuchikami-zake (an early form of the drink) appeared. This crude drink wouldn’t appeal much to us, as it was a communal but unappealing production process: villagers would gather together to chew the rice and spit it out in a pot! The chewed rice, in combination with the saliva enzymes and natural yeast, would then be left to become an alcoholic drink. Thankfully, this method was abandoned with the discovery of koji which started off the fermentation process with no chewing required. Phew!


There are nine different types of sake-brewing rice. Yes, nine. I don’t know what they’re called, so please don’t ask.

After one of the (NINE!) varieties are harvested in the autumn, the rice is polished to remove the outer layer. Different types of sake require different gradients of rice-polishing – as the amount of protein, fat and starch involved changes the final product’s flavour. Afterwards, the rice is washed, soaked and steamed, ready for the next stage.


Water is heavily relied upon during the sake making process – from the washing and steaming, to the brewing to the watering down at the end. The final product is actually 80% water. And there is no single type of water. That would be too simple. Water hardness (mineral content) really affects sake production.

The precise origin of sake is unknown because it is so old that it predates recorded history, but it is believed to have originated in China as much as 3000+ years ago.

Without going into too much detail, the minerals are necessary for the yeast cultures and the fermentation process. So, soft water means it’s harder to make sake.

Most traditional sake producers are located where they are because of close proximity to a lot of good quality water: you’ll find them near to natural springs and streams.

Fermentation and maturation

After the rice has been polished it’s mixed with yeast and koji (the rice cultivated with mould) and the mixture is encouraged to ferment. More batches of the three main ingredients are added over the coming days. The fermentation, which occurs in a large vat, is known as shikomi. All the different variants (the rice-type, the water, the temperature etc) will alter the shikomi. This mush is allowed to sit for 3-4 weeks until it is pressed, filtered and blended.


An interesting side note, but the Master Brewer is the Tōji. They’re in charge of the sake production and each brewery has only one. Traditionally this highly-regarded honour was passed from father to son, but these days the Tōji could just as easily be a graduate of a sake university or an experienced veteran of the brewery.

Serving Temperature

In the past, sake was usually served warm, but processes have changed and improved and as such, some flavours are ruined by heating.

As a rough guide, ‘basic’ varieties should be warmed and ‘premium’ varieties should be chilled, but not too much. There are something like eight different temperature options, and each sake has its own optimum serving temperature.


Sake is a sociable drink, as all should be! You pour it out for other people, using a tall bottle called a tokkuri and drink it from a small cup: the ochoko.

In keeping with tradition, one should hold the tokkuri with two hands when pouring, and the recipient should lift their ochoko up from the table, holding it with one hand and supporting it with the other.


Always remember… if your ochoko goes dry, it will be refilled. You’ve been warned, kanpai!

10 Aug 2022
Sushi Daily Secrets