Sake: a beginner's guide to the Japanese beverage

How well do you know your sake? Or to use the correct word, Nihonshu? 

Olivier Gasselin September 11, 2015

Olivier Gasselin is the head of wine for Hakkasan Middle East & Asia. We asked him to enlighten us about the Japanese beverage Sake. Here's what he had to say...

Sake: a history

Sake is actually the name given to any alcoholic beverage in Japan, and Sake as we know it, is actually named Nihonshu. Its origins are unclear but it has been produced for centuries in Japan.

However, while it is characteristic to Japan it is not like Champagne or cognac in that it can be made anywhere in the world. For example, there are some really good Sakes coming out of China, the US and the Netherlands.

How it is made

Although sometimes referred to as rice wine, Sake is produced by a brewing process which is more like beer. It uses very specific types of rice varieties which are only used for making alcohol so are not for eating. The only other ingredients are water, yeast and a special mold, known as Koji-kin. sake in the UAE. The rice is washed and polished and then steam-cooked, before being mixed with yeast and the koji mold and being left to ferment in a large tank. 

Over the next few days, more rice, koji and water is added and then it is left to continue the fermentation process for anywhere between 18 and 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended. Most Sake is also pasteurized before being left to age for about six months, which helps to round out the flavour.

It requires a lot of technical skill needed to make Sake, especially a good one. Indeed, the vast majority of Sake that is produced is relatively low quality and consumed in Japan.

When to drink

Sake is traditionally served in a Tokkuri (carafe) and drunk from white ceramic cups with white and blue circles inside. Depending on what it is accompanied with or how refined it is depends on whether you drink it warm or cold, with more suited to one or the other. sake in the UAE. It is often used as part of important events, such as weddings and the traditional Cherry blossom celebrations. In line with Japanese custom, there is a very ceremonial way of serving Sake, with the host helping each of his/her guests, before one of the guests pours for the host. You never serve your own cup in Japan.

Unlike wine, the life span of Sake is usually short, even for premium varieties, so it is most often drunk in the first two years after it is produced. For this reason, there is a strong seasonality in Sake consumption in Japan, whereas in the UAE and other markets, it is more of a personal preference.

Sake facts

• Toji is the name given to a Master Sake Brewer
• There are lots of different classifications of Sake, including “Fustsushu, Nigori, Sparkling, Honjozo, Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo, Daiginjo, Koshu (aged Sake), Namazake (unpasteurized)
• Sparkling Sake is made in a similar process to Prosecco
• To this day, the smallest size of Sake rice is for a Junmai Daiginjo where only eight per cent of the rice grain remained after polishingsake in the UAE. Hakkasan Middle East & Asia currently offers 25 Sakes on the menu at Hakaksan Dubai, 13 of which are exclusive; 22 at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi, 9 of which are exclusive; and 7 in Hakkasan Doha, all of which are exclusive. Visit