Sake vs Grappa: What Are the Differences?

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If you are a fan of Japanese cuisine, you have surely heard of sake: an alcoholic drink made by fermenting rice.

But do you know how sake is made and its origins? In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about this ancient beverage: its history, the different existing types and what sets it apart from grappa.

Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation of rice, by adding water, yeast and a mold called koji-kin. The process is similar to the production of beer, but the final result is a more delicate and fruity drink with an alcoholic content ranging from 13 to 16%. The rice used to make sake must be polished to remove the protein and fats present in the outer layers, only leaving the starch contained inside the grain. The more the rice is polished, the more refined and aromatic the sake will be.

There are two main types of sake: futsuu-shu, or “ordinary sake”, and tokutei meishyoshyu, which is a “special-designation sake”. The former is the most common kind and does not need particular requirements for rice polishing or the addition of alcohol. The latter includes eight different types (Junmai, Honjozo, Tokubetsu Junmai, Tokubetsu Honjozo, Ginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo), divided based on the degree to which the rice has been polished and the presence of ethyl alcohol.


Sake is a common drink in Japan, where about 700 million liters are produced per year. Consumption per capita is about 7 liters per year, and sake is also captivating the West thanks to its versatile nature and ability to match numerous different dishes. Sake can be drunk hot or cold, depending on the season and the quality of the product. It can be served in small ceramic bowls called choko, in glasses or in cedar wood boxes called masu.


Sake boasts an ancient history. Like many Japanese traditions, it is thought to have originated in China, where it was “invented” around the fifth millennium B.C. The first written documents on the subject date back to the third century A.D., when sake was offered to the gods during religious rituals. Originally, sake was produced by chewing rice and spitting the mixture into a vat. The rice would be in contact with the enzymes of the saliva, which activated the fermentation process. Although this might seem barbaric and disgusting, it is actually one of the oldest existing techniques in the world for the production of alcoholic beverages and was practiced in the Andes, in Africa, in Asia and in Oceania. After the discovery of the koji-kin mold, the ancient practice became obsolete and mass production became possible. Today, sake is the most famous Japanese alcoholic drink and is the heart of all celebrations. Sake is considered a symbol of finesse, elegance and harmony and can be consumed on several occasions: formal and informal, religious and not. For example, it is offered to Shinto gods during religious ceremonies, as a sign of gratitude and respect. It can also be served to guests during banquets to symbolize hospitality and courtesy. It can also be drunk at weddings to wish the couple happiness and prosperity: sake seals the bond between the spouses, who exchange sake cups while performing a rite called san-san-kudo, which translates to “three-three-nine”. The number three represents the three bonds that unite the spouses – the past, the present and the future – while the number nine symbolizes luck and prosperity. Finally, it is also used as an ingredient to add flavor and aroma to Japanese dishes: it goes well with fish, tofu, vegetables, rice and can be used to prepare desserts such as mochi or yokan.


Sake, therefore, is completely different from grappa: the raw material used is rice and the production technique employed is fermentation, not distillation. A similarity could be found in the selection of different rice cultivars that yield distinct types of sake: this roughly resembles our selection of pomace for the production of monovarietal grappas. But the real difference between sake and grappa lies in the territoriality. Grappa is made from pomace, a raw material that embodies its territory of origin, especially with artisanal grappas. On the other hand, sake is an expression of its… «water». Areas with harder water – or those that have high mineral content – produce more structured sake; while areas where water contains less minerals yield more delicate and “feminine” sake.

Another interesting thing about sake is its flavor: when tasted in a distracted manner, all sake may seem the same. Refined or not, unhusked or pure: the differences are a matter for real experts. With distillates, western taste is more accustomed to distinct and well-identifiable flavors, preferring (and recognizing) those with distinctive characteristics. Eastern taste opts for nuances and is trained to distinguish the infinite subtleties contained in a fermented beverage that stands out for its delicate and subtle flavor

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