Sake Cocktails: A Modern Take on a Traditional Beverage

Sake Cocktails: A Modern Take on a Traditional Beverage

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Sake cocktail
Picture: David Sameshima / Shutterstock
How Japanese sake went from being a sacred drink reserved for the gods to a versatile beverage enjoyed for its own sake - and, recently, in yummy cocktails.

We’ve talked about sake (日本酒; nihonshu) here in detail before in our guide to choosing sake for people who think they hate sake. But there’s a new and popular way to enjoy this world-famous drink: sake cocktails!

It used to be the only way to enjoy your sake was straight (as the gods intended it). Yet throughout the years, as brewing methods developed, so did acceptable ways of serving it. How did sake evolve from the tradition of serving it straight to drinking it as a cocktail? And what are some sake cocktails you can enjoy today?

What Exactly Is Sake?

Sake is the national beverage of Japan. Though its common translation is “rice wine,” this is technically incorrect. Sake is not a wine. The Japanese Liquor Tax Laws define sake very specifically. Sake should have an alcoholic content of 22% or under. The process must involve fermenting from rice, koji, and water.

Sake’s main ingredients are polished rice and pure water. Sakamai, or sake rice, uses different cultivation methods than regular rice, and is not for consumption. The quality of this rice is what determines the quality of the sake. There are currently over 100 types of sakamai today.

The Production of Sake

Sake fermentation tanks. (Picture: skipinof / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

When the rice is polished, the main fermenting agent, a mold enzyme called koji, forms. This mold ferments it from starch to sugar, then to alcohol, simultaneously. (Unlike other alcohols, which often require two separate processes). Pure sake usually has a higher alcoholic content (18-20%) than other alcohols such as wine and beer. 

Toji, the master brewers of sake, oversee the production process to ensure the best quality and taste. Sake brewing is a seasonal, year-long process. It begins in November after the rice harvest and ferments through the winter. In the spring, brewers store the sake in warehouses to age through the summer. By next fall, the sake is ready to drink.

The Origins and Evolution of Sake

Sake has a long and mysterious history. While ancient artifacts indicate wine production as early as the Jomon Period (14,000–300 BC), the specific origins are unknown. References exist in Japan’s oldest history book, the Kojiki (Nara Period, 712). Sake is the weapon of choice in an ancient Shinto myth, where deity Susanoo-no-Mikoto uses sake to intoxicate and kill the legendary serpent, Yamata-no-Orochi.


However, the earliest reference to sake was actually in an ancient Chinese history book, pointing to Chinese origins. The kanji for sake (酒)comes from the Chinese character representing an alcohol jug. The origin of the Japanese word “sake” is debatable, but there are two popular theories. One is that it is from the word “sakaeru,”(to prosper). The other is from a Shinto ritual involving sake offerings called “sakae-no-ki“.

The Importance of Rice Cultivation

Rice cultivation began in Japan during the Yayoi Period, making this the likely timeframe for sake’s development. However, ancient methods were vastly different from today. Early people fermented rice by chewing and spitting it into a jar. There, saliva enzymes broke down the starches. This was called “kuchikami” sake (sake chewed by mouth). It was the primary method for making sake before the discovery of koji.

From Drink of the Gods to Beverage of Humans

Originally a sacred drink, people drank sake as part of rituals and traditional ceremonies. In the Heian Period (794), the government regulated sake, limiting production to the Imperial Courts. Later, that permission expanded to include shrines and temples. These were the main sake production centers before breweries.

By the 16th century, Japan imported distillation techniques from the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Ryukyus (now Okinawa) had a strong trade relationship with China. It is likely, therefore, that these techniques also came from China. By the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), nearly 300 sake breweries sprung up around Kyoto, and techniques further improved. The discovery and implementation of rice polishing sped things along even further in 1575. And by the Edo Period (1603-1868) the techniques for brewing seishu, or pure sake, were born.

Sake tastes varied by region, as the geography influenced the quality of rice and water used. Each region branded itself locally for both the kind of rice and sake produced. Sake became an important part of daily life as Japan flourished.

Sake For The People

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) brought even more changes with laws allowing anybody to make sake. Breweries mushroomed to nearly 30,000 around Japan. Brewers continued to improve the quality of both production methods and sake itself. They replaced the original cedar sake barrels with steel tanks, which were more sanitary and efficient.

Taxes, War, and Sake Decline

But with these changes came an increase in taxes. Taxes became so outrageous, many breweries shut their door as quickly as they opened. Soon, less than 10,000 remained. To further increase the amount of taxes they could collect, in 1905, the government completely banned home-brewing (which was non-taxed). This law remains in effect to this day.

With WWII came shortages in many forms, including rice. This lead to an even further decline in sake production. The few remaining breweries devised new ways to continue production using less rice, such as adding alcohol and glucose. This resulted in greater varieties of sake, albeit at much lower quality.

The First Sake Cocktails

Sake cocktail at The Compass Rose, Westin Ebisu, Tokyo.
A sake cocktail consumed once upon a time at The Compass Rose, the bar atop the 22nd floor of the Westin Tokyo in Ebisu. (Picture: Jay Allen)

Shortages meant brewers had to make more with less. Quality suffered, and so did the number of consumers. The first sake cocktails were actually less of a “fancy drink” than a contrivance to make poor-quality sake more palatable. By mixing low-quality sake with other flavors, they could mask any flaws. Only later on did this concept develop into a popular beverage under influence from overseas.

When Japan recovered after the war on many other fronts, sake still trailed behind. Western influence saw the introduction of many new types of beverages. Beers, wines, spirits, and more. Sake faced even more competition than before. How could it recover?

Modern-Day Sake and Sake Cocktails

While sake grew in popularity around the world, Japan still saw its gradual decline. Today, there exist under 2,000 breweries in Japan. Many of these now double as museums, even offering facility tours, in the hopes of raising interest in traditional sake brewing.

This is where the popularizing of sake cocktails comes in. Previously, sake connoisseurs would never consider tarnishing sake by mixing it with other ingredients. However, recently, many have begun to sing a different tune. The popularity of mixed drinks around the world is undeniable. If Japan could incorporate sake into this trend, sake itself might regain popularity, as well.

Sake Cocktails As A Business Strategy

Brewers have devised new, modern business strategies in the hopes of reviving sake’s popularity back home. This includes the introduction of sake cocktails to their menu, both original recipes and those from overseas. Brewers anticipate the appeal of sake cocktails to foreign customers will also raise interest in different types of sake worldwide. 

They also hope that more variety in drink options will provide more ways to enjoy any kind of sake, regardless of grade. Because sake alone is an acquired taste, cocktails can make cheaper brands more palatable.

Determining Sake Quality

The Sake Grading Scale determines the quality of sake according to seimaibuai, or “rice polish ratio”. A lower percentage equals a higher grade. This system gave birth to the sake categories as we know them today.

Sake in these categories differ by extraction process. There are two basic types: futsuu (regular sake) and tokutei meisho-shu (premium sake). The four main classifications are junmai, (pure sake, only rice and water), honjozo (some additional alcohol), ginjo (40% or higher rice-polish ratio) and daiginjo (at least 50% percent). (Premium sake has eight categories in total: from highest to lowest, they are Junmai Daiginjo, Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Ginjo, Tokubetsu Junmai, Tokubetsu Honjozo, Junmai, and Honjozo).

Seishu, the legal definition of Japanese sake, refers to clear, clean sake. There are also three grades specifically for seishu: tokkyu (premium), ikkyu (first grade) and nikkyu (second grade). These are further subdivided into karakuchi (dry) and amakuchi (sweet).

Sake bottle labels also use several scales to indicate taste: nihonshu-do, also called the Sake Meter Value, or SMV, measures rice polish ratio, and indicates sugar and alcohol content; san-do measures concentration; and aminosan-do determines the flavor.

Sake vs. Sake Cocktails: Preparation and Presentation

There are several ways to enjoy pure, traditional sake. Temperature is an important factor that influences taste. You can enjoy it chilled (reishu), mildly heated (nurukan/kanzake), or hot (atsukan). Chilled sake has a stronger flavor and lighter aroma, while warm sake is more fragrant yet mellow in flavor. Best temperature also varies by brand, though some people say higher-quality sake is best chilled.

Sake cocktails are usually best when chilled, just like regular cocktails. You can drink it with ice, or additional flavorings such as lemon or lime. While restaurants prefer to serve pure sake in traditional ceramic cups (o-choko) or wooden boxes (masu), a modern cocktail requires a modern presentation. Bars and izakaya tend to use tumblers and wine glasses.

Sake Cocktails: What to Order

Bartender making a sake cocktail
Picture: JADE / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

So now you want to try sake cocktails. How do you know to order? The most popular sake cocktails are probably the notorious “sake bombs.” But there are so many more to choose from! Here are links to a few (all recipes in English):



Sake sour

Sake cosmopolitan

Various sake cocktails courtesy of Hakushika

Japan’s largest recipe-sharing site, Cookpad, even lists a bunch of sake cocktail recipes you can easily make at home. English readers can also find a recipe or two in the book The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, which we reviewed last year.

Recently, fancier cocktails have popped up in stylish cocktail and sake bars as well. Japan is big on celebrating its seasons, and special cocktails are a great way to get festive. At the time of writing this article, cherry blossom season is just around the corner, and many places are jumping aboard the Sakura train.

Shibuya Parco’s KUBOTA SAKE BAR is currently offering a limited-edition special cocktail, just in time for Sakura Season! If you are in Japan between now and April 12, 2020, be sure to swing by and grab one of their delectably pink Sakura Sake Cocktails. Its base is Kubota Junmai Daijingo sake and is served with cute (and equally pink!) traditional Japanese confectionaries.

Sake Cocktails All Year Round!

Making good sake cocktails is a sophisticated art. While some bartenders prefer sake cocktails as a way to put cheaper sake to good use, others view it as a special craft that should only make use of the best. With so many grades and qualities, one must choose a combination that will complement the sake’s flavor. What kind of sake cocktails are made, as well as how they are made, is highly dependent on the bartender’s style and skill.

Taking advantage of holidays and seasons is a great way to experiment with different flavors and ingredients. For business owners, it helps with promotions. And for casual drinkers, you can be certain there will always be new flavors to try. Whether for Oshogatsu, Hanami, or even for your birthday, why not find some sake cocktails to enjoy?

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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