I say “sake”, you say… The lowest form of wit? No, not “sarcy” – as in sarcastic – but sake, as in the Japanese drink. So actually, you say “cheers,” or “kanpai!”

This Japanese drink is the traditional alcoholic accompaniment to food in Japan, and it’s something you’ll come across wherever you go in the country. But few people really understand sake, and even among young Japanese, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. To get you on your way, here’s our guide to drinking Japanese sake – just make sure you brush up on Japanese etiquette, too.

So what is sake?

Sake is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. Lots of people think it’s a spirit – like vodka, whiskey, gin or tequila – but whereas spirits are distilled, sake is not.

It’s often said sake is “brewed like beer, but drunk like wine” and that’s a pretty good way of understanding how it fits into the booze family tree. It might be brewed, but the alcohol content is generally 14–16%, so you won’t want to swill pints of it.

Right – fermented and brewed rice juice… Sounds disgusting. Is it?

You could say that about a lot of alcoholic drinks. Most of them come from processes and ingredients that look pretty unappealing written down. But, with care and skill, the final products are delicious.

And that’s the case here – accomplished sake makers are shokunin, a term used to describe traditional Japanese artisans who have perfected a particular craft. They channel centuries-old lore into making something simple absolutely exquisite – be it sushi or ramen or washi paper or candles or, indeed, sake.

Japanese sake making

Thanks to their skill, sake is a whole world of flavour. Of course, it’s different to beer and wine, and your taste buds will take a little adjustment. But the more sake you drink, the more you’ll appreciate it – and no, not in a “one drink leads to another” way.

There’s junmai sake and honjozo sake and daiginjo sake. There’s earthy sake, fruity sake, cloudy, unpasteurised sake; mature sake and sake so fresh it fizzes. There are the kinds that are better warmed. These definitely have their merits, but it’s best to start with a more refined, artisanal sake (generally around 2000 yen).

Junmai and honjozo and daiginjo – what makes those sakes different from each other?

Well, there are lots of processes and factors in sake production, but one of the most important is an early stage: the polishing of the rice.

Polishing is actually just a fancy term for “milling”, the process whereby the outer layers of the rice are worn and worn away to get rid of the bran, leaving just the inner nugget of starchy goodness behind.

Sake bottles, japanese sake

The best grades of sake have been polished the most. Daiginjo, the top stuff, has had at least 50% of its bran removed.

Do the Japanese still drink sake, even though they’ve discovered beer and wine and whiskey now?

They do, but beer and wine especially have chipped away at its popularity in Japan. For the Japanese, beer and wine and whiskey are relatively exotic and new. It’s taking a new breed of sake brewers to revitalize it with the country’s youth.

How do I know if it my sake is good?

Well, that’s really a very subjective business.

A lot of people think of sake as being average at best and at worse like licking the end of a battery. But you shouldn’t sip sake and expect it to taste like white wine – only certain sakes will have that fruity sort of profile.

You need to sample a few, get a feel for the territory, and then judge one sake against another, rather than against wine.

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So where in Japan should I drink it?

You can drink it in bars and restaurants, of course, but it’s fun to actually visit sake breweries and take a tour.

The more artisanal breweries are super cute, too: really small scale, often wood built, full of atmospheric corners. And there’s this tradition of hanging a beautiful cedar ball outside them – when the ball, called a sugidama, turns brown, that means the sake being brewed inside is just about ready.

The Niigata region has lots of lovely breweries and is known for its high-quality sake. Thanks to its low-profile on the tourist trail, you’ll find everything pretty affordable.

Japanese sake brewery

Make sure you check out the wall of sake dispensers they have inside a shop at Niigata station. These tiny little token-operated boxes each have a map showing where the sake was brewed, a description of the flavour, and a plus or minus figure showing how dry or sweet they are. You buy five tokens for 500 yen (that’s about £3 or $4.50). A perfect tipple before the bullet train.

Explore more of Japan with the Rough Guide to JapanCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Feature image Pixabay / CC0.