Sake: 30 Days of Japanese Food

Everything you need to know about sake: the history, ingredients and varieties of the Japanese drink.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Day 30: Sake

What better way to finish a food series about Japanese food than with something all good feasts here are finished with – some sake! I know this isn’t technically a food but I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence.

Sake is a traditional form of Japanese alcohol, often called ‘rice wine’ although the process to make it is actually much more similar to beer production.

While it’s not exactly clear when it was first drunk in Japan (it’s hard to keep records after a few glasses), it’s thought to have originated in the eighth century.

sake, japanese rice wine, rice alcohol, japanese drinks, sake brewery

To learn a little bit more about sake, I went to the museum of the Hakutsuru Brewery near the city of Kobe. Its excellent exhibits show the history of the drink and how that’s evolved into the modern processes.

sake, japanese rice wine, rice alcohol, japanese drinks, sake brewery

It’s actually a much more complicated procedure than I realised.

Briefly, the rice is washed first, then it’s steamed, it’s then cooled, then mixed with a mould that’s been specially prepared, then the mixture is soaked in water, then this fermented mash is added to new steamed rice in three stages, then it’s all filtered to extract the sake, then it’s left to settle before being skimmed, it’s then pasteurised, put into large tanks to rest, and eventually poured out ready to drink. Phew!

sake, japanese rice wine, rice alcohol, japanese drinks, sake brewery

Undiluted sake has an alcohol content of about 20 per cent, although this is often diluted slightly in the commercial varieties you would buy at a bottle shop in Japan. Still, it’s a highly potent drink and it’s no great surprise that you often see Japanese salarymen stumbling around the streets or train stations in the evenings.

sake, japanese rice wine, rice alcohol, japanese drinks, sake brewery

You may have heard of sake being served warm and that’s a popular way to drink it in the winter. But the Japanese feel that heating good sake gets rid of the special tastes and smells so quite often it’s just the cheap stuff that will be served warm (which has the effect of getting rid of the bad tastes and smells).

sake, japanese rice wine, rice alcohol, japanese drinks, sake brewery

The price varies greatly depending on the quality you are buying and where you are buying it from but a 300mL bottle from a shop would cost about 300 or 400 yen. (US$3.10 – US$4.10). It means it’s not an expensive way to warm up your insides after or during a nice meal.

13 thoughts on “Sake: 30 Days of Japanese Food”

  1. Sake, although I wouldn’t call it food, but can’t argue sake goes well with almost all kind of food! I would love to visit one of this sake producing places, envy you. I tried to make my own sake once and the final product tasted awful!! So I use it for soup instead, and I have to say, the soup tasted ok. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Sake in soup would be a good use for it – not sure about the taste, but I’ll take your word for it. The museum was really interesting because I had never realised so much effort goes into making it.

  2. oh by the way, the name I use, lumaca, translated into snail, I use it for the meaning of slowdown, relax and find beauty in the common places. I took that as my philosophy in travel as well. So we have something in common with our view of travel and seeing the world, one being turtle and another being snail, lol

  3. Great pictures! I was in Japan last month and visited the Sake Museum in Kyoto. It was a disappointment being on the edge of the distillery and only being allowed in the little museum and gift shop. Still…some great sake tasting to be had and it was near the Inari gates.

    My favorite sake? Nigori – cloudy and cold, slightly sweet and delicious!

    • I know what you mean – I would have liked to have gone into the distillery properly and seen how the large production works. It was really interesting to see the old style of making sake, though (and how the essence of it hasn’t changed in centuries).


Leave a comment