Name ONE drink that is more refined and has a richer history than sake.
Okay, there is mead, various wines, even some beers. But sake goes to the top of the list by its uniqueness.
Its one-of-a-kind taste and fragrance makes it different from anything else out there and this is probably what has led to its rise in popularity over the last few years.
While sake comes in a wide variety of flavors like beer or wine, the experience of drinking sake is something else entirely.
But for many, sake remains a mysterious beverage and if you’re new to the drink, your questions probably start at the most basic:
What alcohol percentage is sake?
Most sake contains 14% to 16% alcohol when packaged. All sake starts at about 20% after brewing but brewers will dilute it with water to bring it down to about 15% for packaging.
Most brewers feel that sake drinks better at that level. They believe the flavors and textures are best expressed at roughly 15%.
And who are we to dispute that?
It’s also thought that various past tax laws may well have had something to do with the dilution—higher alcohol meant higher taxes!
After rice is polished to remove excess starch and impurities, it’s washed and steamed to prepare it for koji. Once inoculated with koji mould, its left to ferment for between 18 to 32 days (depending on the style and other factors). After fermentation, it’s then pressed, filtered, and pastuerized to prepare for packaging. This is where most sake is diluted (except Genshu) to around 15% for more optimum flavor.
So why would a sake brewer not dilute with any water? Essentially, some brewers simply believe that certain sakes taste better in their naturally fermented state. They believe the texture (mouthfeel) and flavor is supreme at the higher alcohol level.
How Does Sake Compare To Other Alcoholic Drinks?
The sake alcohol percentage can depend heavily on the style. There are five main kinds of sake:
- Junmai-shu – pure unadulterated sake with no brewer’s alcohol added to it. It has a rice polishing ratio (Seimai Buai) of 70%.
- Ginjo-shu – made with rice polished to 60% its original size. It has a wonderful aroma, and has a delicate and light flavor. It has a pleasant aroma with light, delicate flavor.
- Hozjozo-shu – uses sake rice polished to 70%. The sake is made by adding brewer’s alcohol and is not as potent as sake that is made without the addition of alcohol.
- Namazake – This essentially means that the alcohol is not pasteurized. So, all types of sake can be Namazake.
- Daiginjo-shu – a type of Ginjo-shu. It too uses rice polished to 35%-50%. This alcohol is high on fragrance and has a full body, delicate taste and a brief tail.
They’re all brewed in different ways and use a different percentage of rice milling (Semai Buai), thus, they have unique flavor profiles.
Semai Buai is imperative to the sake making process. Stripping the rice of the outer grain to remove proteins, oil, and impurities, ultimately gives you a cleaner final product.
Sake ranges from 14% to 22% (depending on the level to which it’s diluted), which puts it higher than beer (3-10%) and wine (9-16%), but lower than most spirits which are around 40%.
So here we come to the age-old question. Is sake actually a type of beer or wine or both? Or NEITHER?
Judging by its alcohol content, sake does in fact resemble a slightly stronger wine.
Looking at the list, you can even draw a correlation between the alcohol level and common manner in which they’re imbibed. Beer is swigged from large pints and pitchers, while champagne and wine are sipped from smaller glasses. On the higher end of the spectrum, spirits like vodka are either consumed in single shot glasses or mixed into cocktails.
Sake is traditionally measured in a unit called go. One go is around 180 ml. Based on this unit, the most common sake bottle sizes are: 180 ml (1 go; one cup size), 360 ml (2 go), 720 ml (4 go), and 1800ml (10 go)—the magnum-like bottle you’ll often find in izakayas.
Serving glasses and tokkuri are also made to correspond with these serving sizes.
At around 15%, sake is an approachable drink for everybody and even as a beginners of the esteemed beverage, you won’t find the flavors or aromas too overwhelming—you can’t go wrong with Junmai.
There are many sakes one can try that range from sweet to dry to fruity and complex. Once you’ve found a sake you like, the next step is to share with friends and raise your sake cups for a toast.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is sake stronger than wine?
At around 15%, sake has about the same amount of alcohol as most wines which are about 13%-15%.
Given the high quality ingredients and meticulous brewing process, many drinkers of sake may actually find the drink smoother than most wine.
Why are sake cups so small?
The flavor of sake changes with the temperature. That’s why it’s best served in small cups so that it can be finished and enjoyed before it gets too warm.
Especially the Dassai 23, which should be served chilled.
Is hot sake stronger than cold sake?
The alcohol percentage of sake doesn’t change with temperature. There will be some flavor differences and you may find that the heat even masks some desirable flavors. It’s best to drink the sake at the temperature recommended by the brand.
Will sake give me a hangover?
High quality sake, like the Dassai range, does not have any additives and is far less likely than other alcohol drinks to give you a hangover.
That being said, every person is different and you should approach sake with the same caution as you’d approach any other alcohol.