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An Introduction to Japanese Sake

May 13 2020 - Blog

When it comes to experiencing the Good Life, we should certainly not miss out on the charming world of sake (pronounced SA-keh). The national drink of Japan made from fermented rice is also known as nihonshu (meaning “Japanese liquor”). While people around the world refer to this rice-based drink as sake, to the Japanese this word simply refers to any alcoholic beverage including beer, wine and shochu.

The history of sake goes as far back as 500 BC and it is not known exactly when sake was first made. Interestingly, villagers used to make it manually by chewing rice and nuts, using the enzymes in their saliva to aid the fermentation process. Soon after, koji, a mould enzyme brought from China, took over as the new method of brewing the sake we know today.

With the large variety of sake available today, there is so much to learn about this alluring drink. Sky Premium has put together a humble guide to introduce you to your next sake experience.

What Determines the Unique Taste of Each Sake Type?

There are two kinds of people: those who have acquired the taste of sake and those who have yet to. The unique taste of each sake type is influenced by a few factors — rice type, rice polishing grade, water’s mineral content, type of yeast, and the climate of the region where the sake was brewed. The climate determines the growth of the rice grain and thus the size of its starchy core. Since climatic conditions are ever-changing, sake is considered a continuously evolving drink.

To help you make an educated guess on the type of rice used and the taste of the sake, the name of the brewery is often shown on the sake label. We will discuss more on how to read sake labels in the next article.

Generally, sake flavour profiles from the northeast of Japan tend to be tighter, more compact and finer-grained. The flavour profile gets wider, broader and fatter as we move further to the south and west. While this is a good beginner’s guide for sake novices, do note that there would be exceptions in the brewing process and this concept may only hold true to a certain degree.

Guide to Japanese Sake by Region

Till date there are approximately 1,500 sake breweries across Japan, each with their distinctive flavour. To get you started, we have curated a guide to understanding Japanese sake from some renowned sake-producing regions:

1. Nada

Japan’s largest sake-producing area with one-third of all sake consumption in Japan coming from Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture. With a great mountain water resource to enhance the flavour during brewing, Nada sake is characterised by a sharper, dryer, sturdier flavour that is mildly aromatic and masculine. As a result, it is often referred to as “Nada Man’s Sake”.

Flavour: Dry, sharp, masculine

2. Fushimi

Thanks to its access to quality low-mineral water from Horikawa River, the Fushimi region is a rice sake legacy in Kyoto Prefecture — one of the oldest areas for sake brewing and the second-biggest sake producer by volume in Japan after Niigata. Unlike Nada sake, the flavour profile of Fushimi sake is more elegant and feminine with a softer, slightly sweeter and mildly fragrant taste.

Flavour: Silky, feminine, slightly sweet and fragrant

3. Niigata

Famous for producing some of Japan’s finest quality sake, Niigata tops the nation’s sake consumption. Boasting over 90 sake breweries, it is one of the most popular places in Japan for sake brewing.

Niigata is blessed with naturally fertile land for producing quality sake rice and a perfect snowy winter climate for soft pure water and slow fermentation process. Pure snow melts create pristine rice paddies used to grow sake rice. The constant snowfall is also believed to help purify the air, ridding it of impurities that may negatively affect sake production. Collectively, these natural factors give Niigata its reputable “crisp and dry” brew.

The people of Niigata are often described as diligent and persistent, putting their energy into producing high-quality, handcrafted sake that emphasises taste and quality over quantity.

Flavour: Dry, clean, less sweet, light taste, delicate flavour that goes gentle on the palate

4. Akita

Expect rich bold-tasting sake produced with high-quality rice, water and AK-1 (Akita flower yeast) fostered by Akita’s climate. Combined with a traditional cold brewing technique unique to the snowy region, sake brewed in Akita is said to be smooth like the skin of an Akita beauty with a pleasant taste and aroma.

Flavour: Balanced flavour, rich, memorable

5. Yamagata

Yamagata is the only prefecture to receive its own geographical recognition by the World Trade Organisation for the quality and origin of its sake — loved for its clean, light, soft and sweet flavour profile. The secret to this distinctive profile? The groundwater from Yamagata’s surrounding snowy mountains has high mineral content that creates sake with a crisp, sharp finish. 

Flavour: Dry, clean and light sweetness

6. Fukushima

This reputable sake region has a deep history with breweries that dates back 300 years. In 2019, sake from Fukushima won the most gold prizes at the Japan Sake Awards for a record-breaking 7th year in a row. The secret of its taste lies in the distinct climate condition within Fukushima and its abundance of high-quality sake rice and water that produces a variety of sake styles.

For instance, while the mountainous inland Aizu-Wakamatsu is known for a richer, sweeter and more umami-laden type of sake, the coastal region of Hamadori brews light and refreshing sake varieties that pair well with local seafood.

Flavour: Sweet, umami-rich, mellow acidity, smooth texture


In short, good sake can be defined and recognised by the type of rice, quality of water and especially the climate of the region where it is produced. Sake brewing is all about climate and temperature, which yeasts are extremely sensitive to. A slight change in temperature can affect the flavour and colour of the sake as it matures.

Also read: How to Pick a Good SakeHealth Benefits of Sake

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