A brief introduction to sake


We’re delighted to offer a range of fine sakes in our new Spirits Shop at No.1 St James’s Street. But to call it a spirit (or wine) would be misleading. Sake is a distinct category with its own rich heritage, and its own unique flavour spectrum. So, if you’re new to sake, dive into a brief introduction below.

Sake has an ancient history spanning 2,500 years – as old as rice cultivation in Japan. The first written record of Japanese sake consumption comes from a Chinese document in the 3rd century AD stating: “People in Japan drink sake. They drink it in groups when they are mourning.”  

But the arrival of fine sake on the shelves of our Spirits Shop has given us more reason for celebration than mourning. With flavours ranging from bright tropical fruits to savoury umami flavours, it is completely distinct from both wines and spirits – and utterly delicious.  

So, let’s take a closer look at what sake is and how it’s made.  

What is it?  

Sake is often referred to as a rice wine, but the production process makes it closer in nature to a beer. It’s brewed from rice, and once filtered, the final liquid resembles a white wine in appearance, with hues ranging from transparent to cloudy white.  

Usually enjoyed within a year or two of bottling, it’s typically mildly flavoured with a very delicate acidity – much lower than you’d find in wine, resulting in a more subtle and muted flavour profile. However, the alcohol levels are fairly similar to those in wine, averaging at 15 – 16% ABV.   

Serving temperatures can range from warm to chilled. Sakes that have delicate fruit flavours are generally chilled to preserve this character – quite the refreshing treat on a summer afternoon. On the other hand, sakes with a more robust character – typically displaying umami or cereal flavours – are often delicious warm, with slightly higher temperatures bringing out this depth of flavour.  

How is it made?  

Sake is made using four key ingredients: rice, water, koji and yeast. The rice is polished to remove the outer layers of proteins, vitamins and minerals, until only the starch at its core remains. There are different levels to which the rice can be polished, known as the “polishing ratio”. This percentage tells us how much of the rice grain remains, rather than how much has been removed. So, for example, a 60% polishing ratio means that 60% of the rice grain is left after the polishing process. The extent to which the rice is polished determines the style and flavour profile of the resulting sake, and how it will be classified.  

As a general rule, highly polished rice results in more delicate fruit flavours, with a lighter body, lower acidity and less umami flavours. Meanwhile, rice grains that are coarsely polished have more savoury notes, with less fruit but higher in acidity and umami.  

Koji is the name of the mould that’s sprinkled over the rice to kickstart the fermentation process (quite like a sourdough starter). Koji plays a hugely important role in Japanese cuisine – a core ingredient in the production of miso, mirin and shoyu soy sauce, as well as sake and shochu. It imparts a delicate sweetness and nutty character to the rice.  

Once the rice starches have converted into sugars, a sweet liquid is made – much like beer – which is then fermented. Fermentation temperatures are relatively cool, taking place over the course of three to four weeks. Warmer temperatures result in fuller-bodied and spicier styles of sake, while cooler temperatures imbue lighter-bodied, floral and fruity characters. 

Sake classifications 

Sakes are distinguished into two categories: Junmai and non-Junmai sake. Junmai translates to “pure rice”, meaning that no further alcohol has been added. These sakes typically have a more robust flavour profile and a fuller body. Even the more refined Junmai styles (such as Ginjo and Daiginjo) will be marked by a subtle umami character. 

Non-Junmai (or aruten), on the other hand, denotes that the brewer has added a small amount of distilled alcohol, known as jozo. The reason for adding jozo is to preserve the aromas and flavours released in the fermentation process, rather than to strengthen the alcohol. The sake is then watered down, resulting in a lighter and more refined flavour profile: fruity, floral and fragrant.  

Within Junmai and non-Junmai sakes, there are further sub-divisions based on the rice polishing ratio, resulting in a range of expressions and characteristics. Whether any one is better than the other depends entirely on your palate.


These are made from the most finely milled rice (with at least 50% of the grain polished away), which gives the sake a very clean and delicate flavour. Due to the subtlety of these flavours, these sakes are usually served chilled, as heating the liquid can stifle the aromas. Often marked by notes of fresh red apple and melon, it’s said to be a classic partner for sushi and fish-heavy dishes, thanks to its cleansing character.  


Sakes classified as Ginjo are made from rice that’s been milled to a 60% polishing rate. These are typically fruity and floral, with a medium body. This type of sake is best served chilled, and is a delicious pairing for sushi dishes too. But it will generally match beautifully with anything with a more delicate character, such as oysters or simply dressed salads.  


These sakes are also made from 60% milled rice. They often exhibit a character balanced between savoury notes and a more aromatic and fruity profile. They can be medium to full in body, and can be served chilled or warm. Given their versatility, they can stand up to a range of dishes – from noodle dishes such as udon and yaki soba, to shellfish and white meats.  


Sakes labelled simply as Junmai are made from rice milled to a 70% ratio, with no addition of brewer’s alcohol. They usually display a savoury, full-bodied character, with more bitter earthy notes and a higher acidity. Junmai can be served warm or chilled, making it a versatile food partner. Grilled fish, stir-fried vegetables or a hearty bowl of ramen will all be delicious.  


This non-Junmai sake is made from rice with a 70% polishing rate. It has a similar robust profile to Junmai, but – with the addition of brewer’s alcohol – it has a slightly more aromatic character than its “pure rice” counterpart. It usually exhibits cereal notes, with muted fruit. Like Junmai, Honjozo sakes can be served warm or chilled, matching well with a whole range of dishes. 

Sake is a fascinating and complex category to explore – much like wine. If you’re not sure where to start, we highly recommend the OKA from Dewazakura Brewery – one of Japan’s most renowned producers. Made in the ginjo style, it is delicate and floral, and wonderfully versatile with food. Pop into our store at No.1 St James’s Street to pick up a bottle.