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Sake... spotlighting Kitakata!

September 8, 2016

What is sake?

“Kanpai!” – the Japanese for “Cheers!” – marks the start of any evening dining event in Japan. Whilst nowadays you might see a range of alcoholic drinks being held aloft – from beer to cocktails – you'll come across a fair amount of sake too.

Sake, or nihonshu in Japanese, is Japan's national alcoholic drink. Known as rice wine in English, the production process actually more closely resembles beer. Rice is fermented by the addition of koji, a kind of yeast made from rice. After about a month, the mixture is filtered to produce sake, which generally has an alcohol content of 15–17%.

Sake can come hot, cold or at room temperature, and is often served with a flourish. As a sign of generosity, sake cups are placed on a saucer and overfilled so that both vessels are full. This means you may have to take a sneaky sip before you can lift your cup for a “kanpai”.

More than a casual drink with dinner, sake plays an important part in Japanese culture. It is considered a sacred drink in Shinto, a widespread Japanese religion, and a spiced version known as o-toso is drunk at New Year to ward off illnesses.

What's more, if you've ever wanted to cause a little mayhem before having a drink, try the kagami biraki ceremony. At celebratory occasions such as weddings or sports victories, caskets of sake are broken open with mallets and the sake shared freely, so everyone can benefit from the good fortune.


Sake is divided into several categories, depending on its quality. This is distinguished by the degree of rice milling or “polishing”, and whether fortified alcohol is added or not to enhance the fragrance of the final brew.

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