The Beginner’s Guide To Sake

If you ask what sake is when you are in Japan, as opposed to many other areas of the world, and you are going to get two very different answers. Sake, in English, refers to a fermented rice alcoholic beverage that comes from Japan, which you have probably had once or twice from your favorite Japanese restaurant, or a local sake bar.

However, when you ask for sake while you are in Japan, you may be looked upon with puzzlement. This is because, sake actually refers to all alcoholic beverages in general. This will include wine, beer, liquor and the beverage that is referred to as sake in English.

What exactly should we be calling sake from a Japanese perspective? The word for sake in the form that we know it as in the United States is actually nihonshu, which translates to Japanese alcohol. If you ask for nihonshu at any izakaya, you are sure to be greeted with a smile.

Aside from the lesson in language, this rich, delicious beverage will be referred to as sake in this article, just to keep everything nice and simple.

Sake For Beginners

One of the great things about sake is that you have so many kinds to choose from. However, this can also be a rather overwhelming factor for many sake beginners.

If you are hoping to learn all about sake as a sake samurai, you need to take yourself to sake school. If you want to get started with the basics, there are some concepts and terms that can help you to understand this beverage.


While looking at sake making, you will have the polishing of rice. Before sake is made, the rice kernels will have to be milled, which is known as being polished. This is done to remove the outer portion of the grain, leaving behind the starchy core.

Looking closer at polishing, you have to polish off about 10% to go from brown rice to the white rice that we all know and love.

In order to get incredible sake, you have to polish a whole lot more than that. Generally, good sake is polished down to about 50 to 70%, which means that roughly 30 to 50% is actually polished off. If you are reading that the sake has actually been polished to 60% it will mean that 40% has been polished away from the original rice kernel, which leaves just 60% of the original size.


This is the Japanese term that means pure rice. This is important within the world of sake, as this separates pure rice sake from the versions that are non-pure. Junmai is something that is brewed only using water, rice, yeast and koji without any other additives like alcohol or sugar. Unless you have a bottle of sake that says junmai on it, it will have additives, such as brewers alcohol.

While it sounds like junmai is a good thing, which it usually is, just because your sake is not junmai it will not mean that it is not delicious or inferior in any way. Additives will be used by skilled brewers to help enhance or change aromas or flavor profiles. All of this can make for some easy to drink, smooth sake beverages.