Big in Japan: An Ode to Sake

I really love sake.

Now, I know exactly what you’re thinking. Sake?!?! That cheap, indiscernible clear-liquid that they sell at the supermarket for six dollars a bottle. That foul-smelling, foul-tasting garbage that wasted college students love dropping into their beer glasses to the tune of ‘Sake Bomb!’ That gut-wrenching, eye-watering swill of a beverage that they serve at cheap Japanese restaurants across North America.

Well, let’s just say that you don’t know sake like I know sake!

Forget everything you think you know, and allow me to explain to you why real sake is like nothing you’ve drunk before.

Sake (???), which is pronounced sa-kay (not sa-key), is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage made from rice. Proudly regarded as the national tipple of Japan, sake is commonly referred to in Japanese as nihonshu (?????????) or quite literally ‘Japan alcoholic beverage.’ To the Japanese, sake is revered as the most exalted of beverages, much like the French swear by fine wines, or like Americans swear by a cold Budweiser.

Commonly referred to in English as ‘rice wine,’ sake is actually more like rice beer. Unlike wine, which is made by the single fermentation of fruit (typically grapes), sake is produced through the multiple fermentation of grains. While beer consists of the holy trinity of barley, hops and malt, sake consists simply of rice.

Mind you, it’s not just the sweet delicious nectar itself I love, but the refined drinking culture that surrounds it. As with most things in Japan, there are unwritten rules that need to be followed.

For starters, sake is typically served in a special flask known as a tokkuri (徳利), and is poured into a tiny cup known as a choko (猪口). Interestingly enough, good sake is nearly always served either cold or room temperature as heating the beverage is a way of masking the undesirable flavor of a cheap brew. With that said, hot sake hits the spot on a cold winter day, even if it isn’t exactly the most traditional way to drink it.

As foreigners quickly learn in Japan, it is considered rude to pour yourself a glass of sake (or any alcohol for that matter). Instead, it’s good form to refill the glasses of those around you, and wait for others to repay the favor. If you want to acknowledge a friendship, or pay tribute to someone of lower status, you can also raise someone else’s glass and take a small sip.

Also, never underestimate the power of a loud kampai (cheers, かんぱい)!

Although sake has somewhat of a less refined status in the West, that doesn’t mean that the drink doesn’t have its own associated drinking culture. As any college kid can tell you, balancing a choko of sake on a pair of chopsticks straddling a pint glass before slamming the table with your fist and yelling ‘Sake Bomb!!’ is the best way to start (or end) a night quickly.

Of course, there are more sophisticated ways to drink sake, such as in an expertly mixed cocktail.

Here are some of my favorites:


2 ounces of dry sake
Splash of dry vermouth

In a shaker over ice, add the sake and vermouth. Shake well and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with grated lemon peel.

Sake Blossom

2 ounces of nigori (unfiltered) sake
1 ounce of orange juice
1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice

In a shaker over ice, add the sake, orange juice and lemon. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a curled lemon peel.

Lychee-infused Sake

720 milliliter bottle of sweet sake
3 cups of peeled and pitted lychees

In a glass pitcher, combine the sake with the lychees, and refrigerate overnight. You can serve the infused sake straight up or as a base for a cocktail.

Getting thirsty? Go wild in the bar, and feel free to post some recipes here.

** Special thanks to Flickr users rick (sake bottle), est_bleu2007 (amazake) and rick (sake cocktail) **