The Explainer: Sake 101

If sake was a lady, she’d be exotic, quietly spoken, be wise beyond her years and have an endless capability to surprise you – even after years of dedicated involvement. She’d represent the ultimate intersection of traditional and modern, progressive and ancient. She’ll probably seduce you too – so just keep that in mind ok!

Sake has much in common with the wine world but it’s important to not look at sake through a wine-coloured lens; it deserves its own wonder, its own language and its own study.

What sake does have in common with wine though is seemingly endless variables in the growing of rice, the making of sake and the resulting flavour profiles.

Sake is made from special sake rice, and although rice is transported freely from one prefecture to another, in some cases the rice variety does contribute to the sense of regionality in sake. The other factor contributing to this is the character of the water: hard water – which is full of minerals results in a more vigorous fermentation when compared to softer water. On top of this there are production variables such as yeast preference, fermentation temperature and koji production which are used by the Toji (head brewer) to make sake to style. Consistency is king in the world of sake; seasonal variability is not accepted the way it in in wine.


In sake style is often aligned with a few major variables in character, and often these are presented on a scale in the bottle shop or restaurant so you can make an informed decision.

Sweetness <–> Dryness

Simplicity <–> Complexity

Umami <–> Fruitiness

  • Sweetness in sake is measured on an SMV scale: where + numbers are dryer, -numbers are sweeter (remember higher is dryer!) . Typically most sake fall in between -5 and +5. Note that fruitiness is different to sweetness – in that fruitiness is a flavour and sweetness is a taste governed by sugar content.
  • Umami is measured by the amino acid content which varies between .5 – 2.5
  • Total acidity in sake is quite low compared to wine – around 1-2g/L compared to most white wine at 5-9g/L. Although the role of acid is similar – it keeps the mouthfeel from being cloying, pulls flavour towards the back of the palate and gives a sense of cleansing crispness, which is important in food.

These numbers are only helpful to a certain degree though especially considering how complex sake can be and how these structural aspects can negate or enhance each other. It should be used as a guide only!


Sake is made from four ingredients: sake rice, koji mould, water and in some instances brewers alcohol.

In wine fermentation is based around a basic sugar > alcohol conversion aided by yeast. It is basic in the sense that the sugar in grape juice is freely available to the yeast.

Rice however is full of starch –a long chain molecule which yeast are unable to convert. So, as with beer, these long chains must be converted into short chain sugars which can then be fermented into alcohol. So in sake, the fermentation must  happen in two steps. The incredible thing about sake though is that these two steps happen simultaneously in what’s known as a ‘double parallel fermentation’. This is totally unique in the beverage world!

1.                    CONVERSION ONE: Steamed Rice + Koji Mould > Converts long chain starch into short chain sugar. Koji mould is like magic! Sprinkle it on steamed rice and two days later is has converted the starch in the rice into fermentable sugars. The koji process though is quite delicate – the rice must be kept warm, with a precise humidity also. The person responsible for the koji commands much respect in the kura (brewery).

Not all of the rice used in a batch is infected with koji though: only about 25% of most finished sake has undergone this conversion. This is because when you add the Koji starter into plain steamed rice, it multiplies rapidly.

2.                    CONVERSION TWO: Koji Affected Rice + Yeast + Water > converts available short chain sugars into alcohol. This is first done in a small batch ‘starter’ and then transferred into the larger volume mash after about two weeks – when the double fermentation begins.

When the Moto (yeast starter) is going strong fresh steamed rice, water and more koji rice are added. This mix is called the mash. The ratio here of each is critical as there must be enough nutrients, koji & yeast to feed both conversions which are taking place.

Over the next few days more water, yeast and koji rice are added to the mash to extend the volume. When the additions are complete the fermentation takes between 20-35 days. There are lots of variables here but the biggest one is temperature. Depending on the style, some sugars may be left unfermented – creating a soft sweetness in the sake.

When the fermentation is complete the sake is pressed. At this stage the Toji might use an addition of brewers alcohol to enhance the aromatic profile. See the ‘quality’ section for more details on this.

The finished sake is cut with water to bring it back to a lower alcohol (usually around 15-17%) and then is normally pasteurised and stored for 6~ months before release.


As with anything, the idea of quality rarely finds objective ground to stand on and often instead uses subjective measures.

Sake is no exception: there are three levels of ‘perceived quality grades’ which are tied closely to the milling rate of the rice used – and this is reflected in price. This is useful to know if you buy & drink sake, however importantly, it’s entirely possible that you might consistently prefer the lower grades against the higher.  These three grades are then divided further down the centre depending on whether they’ve had alcohol added.

Milling Rate (% remaining) Alcohol Added Pure
50% Daigingo Junmai Daigingo
60% Gingo Junmai Gingo
70% Honjozo Junmai (no milling law)

Despite the fact that these terms do not have to appear on the label, the milling rates are governed by law and quite heavily regulated (equivalent to European AOC laws). The reason for such heavy importance on milling is that it is the measurable factor which is most closely tied to price and perceived quality.

The protein and fat around the edges of Sake rice are removed in the milling process to leave behind the central starchy ‘shinpaku’. This is significant as these proteins and fats can inhibit fermentation or even spoil the sake. Having said this there is brown rice Sake (genmai) on the market which is really interesting!


Historically, sake was always made with an addition of alcohol before pressing. At a maximum rate of 130L / metric T of milled rice, this extra alcohol helps to extract aromatic compounds by making them more soluble; it also increases volume. The end product is generally then cut back with water to achieve the standard 15-17% alcohol

Throughout the second world war, shortages of brewers alcohol led to ‘junmai’ styles being made. The Junmai styles are perceived by some to be more pure, restrained and elegant. Of course you’ll have to make your own judgements here though!


Sake is beautifully entwined to many ancient Japanese customs, especially when it comes to serving.

The Japanese place much importance on the custom of pouring for others –an endearing, very beautiful custom which is further encouraged by the use of very small ceramic ‘choko’ cups. The traditional ‘masu’ square box is another traditional vessel which may be used.

For Sake appreciation, a small wine glass is idea as it concentrates the aromas into the top of the glass, and the fine rim gives good palate coverage.

Serving temperature is important in sake, however it really comes down to personal preference. The old assumption that bad sake is served warm is something to forget! Furthermore, there is not just warm and cold, there is everything in between! Next time you drink sake at home, experiment with temperature to find your preference.

Warming sake (depending on the style) can:

– Increase the aromas
– Increase the perception of ‘bigness’ or density
– Reduce the perception of acidity
– Potentially increase the perception of sweetness
– Potentially increase the perception of umami
– Potentially increase the perception of alcohol


Fruit: Green apples (cooked, stewed, raw, tart), banana, melon, melon skin, lychee

Rice: Cooked, dried, stewed, rice pudding, roasted

Oceanic: Brine, salt, kelp, (soy/miso)

Vegetal: Fennel, mushroom, herbal (dried/fresh/woody/leafy), moss, artichoke

Umami: Parmesan, tomato, egg, artichoke, dried meat

Yeast: Biscuit, bread, sweet pastry, brioche


Discovered by a Japanese scientist, Umami is considered a taste – alongside bitter, sweet, salty and sour. These tastes are detected by your tongue and are different to flavours – which are detected by you olfactory system (nose). It is often described as a sense of ‘savoury deliciousness’. It is the basis of MSG and is strong in foods such as cured meat, parmesan, cooked egg, shellfish, soy sauce, kombu and bonito. Matching umami rich food with umami rich sake is a revelation!


*NIHONSHU*: This is the Japanese term for what we know as ‘sake’, as the word sake in Japanese refers to alcohol in general.

MUROKA: This refers to sake which has not been charcoal filtered: a process which removes any microbiological instability. Not performing this step may lead to sake with a more characterful profile.

GENSHU: Genshu sake has not been diluted with water after fermentation. Importantly, it doesn’t always mean it will have a higher alcohol as some ferments naturally finish around 16%

NAMA: Nama refers to sake which has not been pasteurised. Again, pasteurisation can lead to flavour loss so this method is preferred by some. Namezake must be kept cold.

NIGORI: Nigori sake is cloudy due to a decision to leave some of the yeast lees in the sake. Can give a creamy mouthfeel, but may also detract from a sense of purity

GENMAI: Made from brown rice – Genmai sake are other fuller bodied with flavours of brown rice. Can be very interesting with food.


Chefs Armoury (422 Church St Richmond) has a great range with easy to understand coding for flavour profiles. Also online at

Kumo Izakaya (152 Lygon Street, Brunswick) is a restaurant which can also sell you bottles to take home. Run by Sake Master Andre Bishop – who also runs Sake classes throughout the year.

Blackhearts and Sparrows, Whisky & Alement, City Wine Store,  Prince Wine Store, Dan Murphy’s and some local bottle shops also carry a small range.