“Sake” ≠”Japanese rice wine” !

How do you recognise "Sake" in the first place?

Many non-Japanese people see it as "Japanese rice wine", made from fermented rice.

What's wrong with that?

Actually,in two ways, it is a misconception.

One is that while the noun "sake" in japanese does not necessarily mean the alcoholic beverage made from rice. In Japanese language, the word "sake" or "shu" (酒, "liquor") generally refers to ANY DRINK that contains ethanol. The beverage you know as "sake" in English is usually termed "nihonshu" (日本酒, "Japanese liquor") This means, Japanese native speakers refer to "sake" to describe anything alcoholic, like wine, beer, whiskey, gin....ANYTHING that makes you intoxicated! ;D

Secondly, although "sake" is described as "rice wine", it is not produced like grape wine in the Occident. Grapes naturally have sugar in the first place, with which alcohol (ethanol) can be produced directly by fermenting that, whereas sake is produced by a brewing process more like that of beer: it uses the conversion from rice starch into sugar and makes the alcoholic fermentation possible.

In fact, the brewing process for sake differs even from that of beer. When sake is brewed, these conversions and the alcoholic fermentation occur simultaneously in the tank, which enables the sake to have higher alcohol around 18%–20% before diluting it down to 13-17%. Moreover, the converting process in sake from starch to sugar is done by microorganism Aspergillus oryzae (Koji mold) sprinkled onto steamed rice, different from malting and mashing in the beer producing process.

Japanese "sake" or to be precise, "Japanese alcoholic beverage" is not only "nihonshu" either. There are ones called "Shochu 焼酎”.

Nihonshu and Shochu are both traditional Japanese alcoholic beverages, but there are some important differences. The biggest difference is that Shochu is distilled liquor, similar to brandy and vodka. As a distilled beverage, Shochu has higher average alcohol content of 25-37% than that of Nihonshu (13-17%). Also, Nihonshu is always produced with rice, although shochu can be produced from Japanese sweet potato, barley, rice, buckwheat, sugar cane, etc.

Shochu has become increasingly popular among the Japanese, especially among young people and it has been outselling Nihonshu since 2003 in Japan. However,the popularity of Nihonshu has been reviving, and it is gaining the attention of the consumers overseas these days.

Please bear in mind that there are diversities in the Japanese word "Sake" while you are in Japan!
Of course, I hope you would enjoy "nihonshu-traditional rice alcoholic beverage" which you know as "sake"! :D