Japanese Program Learnings: Sake

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Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage. While the word sake in Japanese means ‘alcohol’, it is often used to refer to nihonshu 日本酒, or Japanese rice wine. As part of our Lauder immersion, we took part in a sake tasting event. Like wine, sake has many subtle and complex flavors that require some background knowledge to appreciate.

Sake is made by fermenting polished rice, yeast, and rice mold called kouji. Sake is categorized by the percentage that the grains of rice have been polished to and whether other filler alcohols have been added. For example, junmai refers to sake that has no additional alcohol added. Ginjo sake is made with rice that has been at least 40% polished. The highest grade, Daiginjo, is made with rice that is least 50% polished down. Sake made with more polished rice tends to have a more delicate flavor profile.

The flavor profiles of sake are broadly categorized into karakuchi, which is dry and potent, and amakuchi, which is sweet and flavorful. Other more subtle characteristics include fruitiness, fragrance, and mellowness. When drinking sake, it is recommended to first observe the color, sample the fragrance, and observe the viscosity before tasting for flavor profiles and aftertaste.

Recently, sake has been growing in popularity outside of Japan. However, unlike other forms of alcohol, sake does not include preservatives and has a relatively short shelf life so it is difficult to ship over long distances. Currently, the most popular destinations for exporting sake are Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai, which are all relatively close to Japan. It will be interesting to see how sake consumption and manufacturing in overseas markets will change in the future.

Considering that drinking culture is an important part of Japanese business etiquette, we feel that our experience learning about sake appreciation will come in handy in the future.