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Guide to saké

Everything you should know about the classic Japanese rice liquor: how it’s made, the polishing rate, and where to drink it

Photo: iStock

Isn’t saké just rice wine?
While saké is often referred to as rice wine, it’s not exactly accurate. Technically, wine is produced from the fermentation of sugar in a fruit. What makes saké completely unique is its brewing process and ingredients. To produce saké, the starch in the rice is first converted into sugar before being converted into alcohol; saké generally contains about 15 to 20 percent alcohol. An important step is the milling the rice grains go through, where the rice is polished to remove the protein and oils, leaving behind just the starch.

Isn’t protein supposed to be good for us?
It is, but not for saké. The rice polishing is done so that the starch is left behind when the other minerals are removed. That’s why polishing rates are so important among saké enthusiasts: the higher the rate of rice polishing, there will be less minerals affecting the taste of the saké. The rate of rice polished determines the grade of the saké.

That means saké is basically just rice and water, right?
Yes! However to make saké they don’t just use any ordinary rice or water. Saké is made from a special type of rice called saka mai. This rice grain is larger and contains less protein than the ones we usually eat. The type of water breweries use to make saké is just as important. Yes, there are different types of water. Different breweries have their own water sources and use specific types of water to yield different types of saké. For example, soft water is used for the sweeter sakés while hard water is often used to make the drier sakés.

Saké selection at Toritama

This is all getting a little bit too complicated now. So there are different grades of saké?
Not only that, there are many different types of saké depending on various factors. Broadly, saké can be divided into two categories: junmai-shu and non-junmai. Junmai-shu are sakés that don’t contain any distilled alcohol, while non-junmai saké contains distilled alcohol.

Then, within each category the sakés are ranked according to their rice polishing ratio. The ratio of rice polishing refers to how much the grain has been polished down to from its original size. For instance, under the junmai-shu category, junmai saké has a rice polishing ratio of 70 percent or less (the grain is now 70 percent of its original size) while junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo have a rice polishing ratio of 60 percent and 50 percent respectively.

The general rule is: the lower the percentage means the rice grain retains less of its original size after polishing; hence the purer the rice starch, the more premium the saké.

Is the non-junmai saké considered inferior because of the added distilled alcohols?
While some brewers add a small amount of distilled alcohol to enhance the flavour and aroma of the saké, it doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of the saké. You could very easily find premium non-junmai saké. The alcohol is usually added to extract the flavours and aromas left behind in the solids during the production process.

Okay, now I actually want to try it. Teach me, senpai.
Firstly, you’ll need an ochoko (tea cups the size of shot glasses) to drink your saké from. Okay, you don’t actually need it, but let’s keep it authentic. Reminder: sakés aren’t shots. Instead, try to appreciate the drink and look out for the subtle flavours.

Also, you might have heard that some sakés are better appreciated hot. This is usually bad advice; most sakés taste best when they are room temperature or cold. When the saké is too hot, the heat will overpower and mask the flavours. That’s why saké cups are usually small too. It’s so you can finish your drink before the temperature changes. A good rule of thumb to live by is unless you’re living in the cold mountains of Japan, it’s usually a bad idea to have saké hot.

Where to get saké

THE MARKET at Isetan The Japan Store

THE MARKET at Isetan The Japan Store

Little do people know that there’s a saké bar at the food market on the lower ground floor of Isetan The Japan Store. Besides carrying a wide variety of saké for retail purchase, you can also sit down for a tasting. Order a tasting flight of either one, two or three shot glasses, and take your pick from 12 varieties.

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Bukit Bintang
Photo: Bryan Ong


This Thai-Japanese restaurant in APW Bangsar takes the fusion concept to their saké as well – by featuring it in simple cocktails. It’s basically the Japanese ‘rice wine’ mixed with an extra flavour or ingredient, ie saké with lemongrass, saké with assam boi, and even saké with Calpis (a brand of soft drink from Japan).

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One of the top yakitori restaurants in KL, Toritama offers a lengthy menu of saké options to go with your grilled skewered chicken meal. You have to get them by the bottle, save for a few that are available by the glass.

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Solaris Dutamas
Nomi Tomo Saké Bar

Nomi Tomo Saké Bar

This Japanese bar is hard to find, but it holds one of the biggest collections of saké in KL. The variety is comprehensive, ranging from super premium ones to trendy sparkling types. All great sakés, all equally hard to pronounce.

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Bukit Damansara
Fuji Pacific online saké retailer

Fuji Pacific online saké retailer

Buy saké online and have it delivered to your home. Fuji Pacific also offers Japanese whiskies, shōchū and umeshu – plus there are regular promotions on the site as well. Delivery is free for a minimum purchase of RM120.