Sake, pronounced /sakeh/, is a popular traditional Japanese drink that’s often referred to as rice wine. Fermented from rice, it’s Japan’s national beverage and is typically served on special occasions or holidays, but you can get it any time right here in Columbia. If you’re new to the sake scene, we’re breaking down everything you need to know to order and drink sake like a pro.

Sake’s origin dates back to earlier than recorded history, so the actual birth of the drink is uncertain. We do know that it was produced as early as 500 B.C. in China, but the production process was not as polished as it is today. Back then, sake was made by chewing rice and nuts and spitting them into a tub where the contents would eventually ferment.

How is it made?

Ingredients are not chewed and spat out these days, thanks to the discovery of koji, a filamentous fungus, which is now used to ferment rice or other grains to make sake. Today, sake is usually made with rice and water. The rice is refined and sprinkled with koji spores during production. The rice is washed, steamed and cooled before it is combined with koji and water. These ingredients are then pressed to produce the sake “juice” before it is bottled and ready for drinking.

“It’s brewed and fermented like a traditional wine would be,” says Andrew Bell, the manager and sake purchaser for Geisha Sushi Bar.


Geisha Sushi Bar's Sake Sampler lets customer test four different types. 

Some people describe the prominent smell of sake as similar to that of fermented rice. Some producers add fruits or flowers as gentle flavor enhancers. “If you’re just getting into it, the clear and fruit-infused ones are the most acces- sible,” Bell says.

Sake usually contains about 8% to 13% alcohol, which is a bit more than the average amount in wine. “There’s a lot of different kinds,” Bell says. “Some are sweeter, and some are a little more sour.” Generally, sake is light and sweet.

How should it be served?

Sake can be served cold or warm. It is poured from a tall bottle called a tokkuri and served in a sakazuki, which is a small porcelain cup. When properly made, sake is clear in appearance and smells delicate and floral. Once served, sake should be sipped and enjoyed like tea.

In addition to pairing well with your sushi, warmed sake goes down smoothly. Jung Kim, an employee at Kobe Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar, notes that many customers order hot sake during the winter months. “A lot of people order the regular warm sake and like it,” Kim says. She also notes that those who have never tried sake before are usually pleased with the taste.

Dave Parsons, manager of Sake Japanese Bistro and Bar, typically recommends an unfiltered sake, such as the Momokawa Pearl Junmai Ginjo Nigori Genshu, which has a sweet and full-bodied taste. For first-timers who might be overwhelmed by choices, Geisha Sushi Bar offers a sampler for customers to choose four different kinds to try. “I would encourage people to try them all,” says Bell.


The Smoking Sake Cosmo at Geisha Sushi Bar puts a unique spin on the traditional drink. 

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