What Is Sake?

Sake is sometimes referred to in English-speaking countries as “rice wine“. However, unlike wine, in which alcohol (ethanol) is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally present in grapes, sake is produced by a brewing process more like that of beer.

The brewing process for sake differs from the process for beer, in that for beer, the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol occurs in two discrete steps. But when sake is brewed, these conversions occur simultaneously. Furthermore, the alcohol content differs between sake, wine, and beer. Wine generally contains 9%–16% ABV,[3] while most beer contains 3%–9%, and undiluted sake contains 18%–20% (although this is often lowered to about 15% by diluting with water prior to bottling).

The label on a bottle of sake gives a rough indication of its taste. Terms found on the label may include nihonshu-do (日本酒度), san-do (酸度), and aminosan-do (アミノ酸度).[17]

Nihonshu-do (日本酒度) is calculated from the specific gravity of the sake and indicates the sugar and alcohol content of the sake on an arbitrary scale. Typical values are between -3 (sweet) and +10 (dry), equivalent to specific gravities ranging between 1.007 and 0.998.

San-do (酸度) indicates the concentration of acid, which is determined by titration with sodium hydroxide solution. This number is equal to the milliliters of titrant required to neutralize the acid in 10 mL of sake.

Aminosan-do (アミノ酸度) indicates a taste of umami or savoriness. As the proportion of amino acids rises, the sake tastes more savory. This number is determined by titration of the sake with a mixture of sodium hydroxide solution and formaldehyde, and is equal to the milliliters of titrant required to neutralize the amino acids in 10 mL of sake.

Traditionally sake was brewed only in the winter. While it can now be brewed year-round, there is still seasonality associated with sake, particularly artisanal ones. The most visible symbol of this is the sugitama (杉玉), a globe of cedar leaves traditionally hung outside a brewery when the new sake is brewed. The leaves start green, but turn brown over time, reflecting the maturation of the sake. These are now hung outside many restaurants serving sake. The new year’s sake is called shishu 新酒 (“new sake”), and when initially released in late winter or early spring, many brewers have a celebration, known as kurabiraki 蔵開き (warehouse opening). Traditionally sake was best transported in the cool spring, to avoid spoilage in the summer heat, with a secondary transport in autumn, once the weather had cooled, known as hiyaoroshi 冷卸し (“cold wholesale distribution”) – this autumn sake has matured over the summer.

There is not traditionally a notion of vintage of sake – it is generally drunk within the year, and if aged, it does not vary significantly from year to year. Today, with influence from wine vintages, some breweries label sake intended for aging with a vintage, but this is otherwise rare.

Maiko offers a large variety of Sake for you to sample so be sure to ask our servers or bartender for your tasting today!