An introduction to sake

Over the years I've been in Japan, I've become a lover of Japanese sake. It's not just because I'm a cheap drunk, but also because it's delicious and there are so many varieties. Every time I come home, I always bring some samples of random stuff for my friends and family to try. Sake is definitely one of the cool things to experience when you come to Japan.

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The word sake (酒) in Japanese actually means any kind of liquor. When we use the term sake, we're referring to one of two Japanese alcohol drinks – nihonshu (日本酒 – rice wine) and shochu (焼酎 – distilled spirits). While shochu originated in the Asian mainland, nihonshu is native to Japan. It's likely that nihonshu was referred to as sake before shochu, beer, wine and other types of alcohol became common in Japan.

Shochu

Shochu is the Japanese equivalent of firewater. A little like vodka, it burns going down and is usually mixed, diluted with water, or at least drunk over the rocks. They have no tradition here of doing shots like we do in the West, and thank the good Lord for that.

There are two types of shochuko (甲) and otsu (乙). Otsu is considered 'pure' shochu because it comes from only one source. This source may be potatoes (芋焼酎 – imo-jochu), barley (麦焼酎 – mugi-jochu), buckwheat (蕎麦焼酎 – soba-jochu), rice (米焼酎 – kome-jochu), or any number of other raw materials. Ko, on the other hand, is made through multiple distillations of a mixture of raw materials.

Otsu is usually drunk on the rocks or mixed with water so that the taste comes through. Each type of otsu has its own aroma and flavor that comes from the raw material used. Ko doesn't have this distinctive flavor and is mixed to make cocktails like chu-hi (酎ハイ – high ball with shochu).

What makes shochu especially cool is that every tiny corner of the country has its own local brand. At my local liquor store there's an entire isle devoted to shochu from Chiba Prefecture where I live. It would probably take me two weeks just to try reading all of the labels.

Shochu Photo by Yelp.com

Nihonshu

Nihonshu (日本酒) is often called rice wine but it would more accurately be called ‘rice beer' because the process of making it is more like that of beer. No sugar is used in the fermenting process.

Most folks back home love sake because you heat it up and drink it hot, which makes it something of a novelty. However, sake connoisseurs usually prefer their nihonshu either chilled or served at room temperature. Usually only the cheap stuff is heated up.

Sake is a traditional part of the Japanese Shinto religion. It's called omiki (お神酒) and sipped on special occasions such as New Year's, wedding ceremonies, festivals and funerals. People usually sip sake at ceremonies... except for my dad who, thinking it was water, downed a glass and nearly choked at my son's christening.

One of the great things about sake (both kinds) is that if you can develop a taste for it, you can drink very cheaply. Sake drinks are usually cheaper at bars than beer and mixed drinks that use whiskey, vodka or gin. It's a nice way to economize while still enjoying a night out.

The wonderful world of izakaya

People always look at me strangely when I go into a liquor store and buy Japanese booze instead of the beer or wine they'd expect a Westerner to be buying. Has anybody else acquired a taste for Japanese sake?

Cover phot by Bytemarks

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