In most of the Western world, Japanese wine distilled from rice is commonly known as “sake”. As with the Western tradition of wine, Japanese sake comes in many, many types of flavors, features a wide range of dryness to sweetness, a variety of infusions, varying clarity, prices, and recommended food pairings.
In Japanese, the word “sake” is used to refer to alcoholic beverages in general. The traditional-style alcohols distilled in Japan are referred to in Japanese as “Nihon-shu”, literally “Japanese alcohol”. Shochu is a potent, clear alcohol distilled from rice, potato, or wheat, but is more similar to vodka in its flavor and strength. It is typically drunk neat, on the rocks, mixed with water, or, more recently, mixed with various sodas and fruit juices in a cocktail referred to as a shochu-highball, or “chu-hi” for short.
The rice wine featured at many sushi restaurants in the West is respectfully referred to as “o-sake” in Japan. The highest quality sake is rumored to come from prefectures with the purest water, where the most delicious rice is supposedly grown: Niigata, Akita, Kyushu, and Mie are among them. But delicious, high-quality sake can be found all over Japan.
Unlike many high-quality Western wines, high-quality sake can be found for relatively cheap, and is even sold in most convenience stores. A small bottle of reputable sake from Niigata can be found in a convenience store for under 500 yen.
Sake is often thought of in the West as a pairing for sushi, but in Japan, it accompanies many other dishes as well. Seafood both raw and cooked is often enjoyed with sake. Kushi-katsu, Japanese kebab, is another common pairing. O-sake can also be served hot, making it especially drinkable in the colder seasons.
Traditionally, o-sake is poured from a small carafe and sipped from small, ceramic cups called “gui-nomi”. Sometimes, the host displays their generosity by placing the cup into a small, wooden box called a “masu”, and fill both with sake to the brim. It is said that, when choosing cups for serving sake at home, you should choose a variety of difference cups so that each guest may choose one that appeals to them.