As the Japanese cuisine is becoming popular outside Japan, the Japanese word “sake” is gaining citizenship in English as well. My Oxford English dictionary says it is “a Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice.”

In Japanese, “Sake” is usually written as 酒 and often a prefix お is added (i.e. お酒(おさけ/osake)).

However,the word 酒 can be used like this:

(sake wa karada ni doku da.)

Sake is poisonous to the body.

This “sake” is not about “rice wine” but alcoholic drink in general.

So in Japan, if you ask for “sake” in a bottle shop, shop assistants will look puzzled. There, you should ask for 日本酒(にほんしゅ/nihonshu)to specify you are after a “sake” – rice wine. It is ironic that a commonly known word outside Japan is not used in the same way in Japan!

Here are other 酒 related words:

  • 酒屋(さかや/sakaya)- bottle shop
  • ビール(びーる/biiru)- beer
  • 発泡酒(はっぽうしゅ/happoushu) – low-malt beer or sparkling liquor
  • 焼酎(しょうちゅう/shouchuu)- Japanese distilled spirit, usually from sweet potatoes, rice or wheat
  • チューハイ(ちゅーはい/chuuhai) – shouchuu based premixed drink
  • カクテル(かくてる/kakuteru) – cocktail
  • 梅酒(うめしゅ/umeshu)- spirits flavored with ume plums; ume plum liquor
  • 洋酒(ようしゅ/youshu) – Western liquor
  • リキュール(りきゅーる/rikyuuru) – liqueur
  • ワイン(わいん/wain) – wine

If you ask for 日本酒(にほんしゅ/nihonshu) in a food outlet, however, you will also get asked more questions. This is because Japanese rice wine can be served “warm,” “chilled” or at room temperature. It is mostly decided by your preference but some “sake” are better warm and others better cold. Here are the basic expressions:

  • 燗(かん/kan) – warmed
  • 冷(ひや/hiya)- room temperature
  • 冷酒(れいしゅ/reishu)- chilled

There are more words depending on the precise temperature, so if you like “sake”, maybe you should visit a “nihonshu” speciality restaurant or 蔵元(くらもと/kuramoto – brewery)and try tasting different sake!

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