Sake — pronounced “sah-KAY” — is a fun, sophisticated and slightly mysterious drink steeped in rich history. It works well on many occasions. You can pair it with food, drink it on its own or add it to a cocktail for a little extra flavor. If you’re looking to broaden your horizons and try something new, this traditional Japanese beverage could be what you need.
If you’re new to sake, the different types might be overwhelming. With this complete guide to sake, you’ll understand the basics, like how to drink sake, serve it and make it an elegant addition to your bar.
What Is Sake?
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from four primary ingredients — rice, water, yeast and a rice mold known as koji. Though you may hear people call it rice wine, sake is neither wine, beer or spirit. This stand-alone beverage is the national beverage of Japan, more potent than wine but lighter than spirits.
Sake’s history goes back more than 1,300 years. As the brewing technique evolved, this transparent beverage developed a unique flavor that gained popularity throughout Japan and the rest of the world. A fine sake ages for at least a year, with an alcohol percentage between 15% and 20% or more.
The brewing process includes highly polished, steamed rice called sake mai. The koji mold, known as aspergillus oryzae, also plays a role in fermenting soy sauce and yeast.
Many factors influence the finished product’s taste, including different yeasts and the water’s mineral content. The brewing process yields several flavor profiles, so there is a sake to suit every palate.
Types of Sake
There are various types of sake, depending on the brewing process, the rice and the addition or omission of distilled alcohol. In general, more polished rice grains produce higher-quality sake.
- Junmai: Sake must be pure to qualify as junmai, so brewers do not add distilled alcohol in the brewing process. About 30% of the rice has its outer layer removed, while approximately 70% maintains its original size. Junmai is a broad sake classification with a full-bodied, savory profile.
- Ginjo: Ginjo is similar to junmai, with a delicate flavor and delightful aroma. The rice is 40% milled, while 60% of the grains remain at their original size.
- Daiginjo: This premium sake involves rice milled down to 50% of its original size. Daiginjo allows the inclusion of distilled alcohol.
- Hanjozo: Hanzojo sake uses rice polished down to 70% of its original size in the brewing process but allows the addition of distilled alcohol to enhance or change the flavor profile.
- Futsu: Brewers of futsu sake can use any rice polish they desire and choose whether to add distilled alcohol. This type of sake is also known as table sake.
Variations of Sake
- Sparkling: Brewers ferment the yeast twice to trap CO2. Alternatively, they can inject CO2 to provide this sparkling option.
- Nigori: Instead of being clear like traditional sake, nigori is coarsely filtered and cloudy, allowing much of the natural sediment to remain. Often, nigori is sweet, with a smooth texture.
- Infused: Manufacturers infuse sweet or citrus flavors into traditional sake to create a unique element.
- Takubetsu: Brewers often mill the rice more than usual to create this sake variety, known for its crisp and dry flavor.
- Genshu: Diluting sake with water can add or change the flavor. Sake diluted with water that changes the alcohol percentage by 1% or less is genshu.
- Kimoto: Brewers use a different process when creating kimoto, smashing the rice with a pole to release lactic acid.
- Yamahai: Yamahai sake is similar to kimoto, as the method allows lactic acid to grow independently. This method does not use a pole to break down the rice.
What Does Sake Taste Like?
The many variations of sake provide broad flavor profiles, but sake is generally slightly sweet with a clean finish. Depending on your choice of sake, you can look forward to a hint of umami flavor. It’s a smooth, light drink, easy to enjoy without heaviness. Sake can leave an aftertaste due to the glutamic acid flavor, which is also responsible for sake’s richness.
When pouring sake, you’re likely to encounter a fruit and nut scent, which soon dissipates. Depending on the type of sake you enjoy, you may also experience an earthy, natural aroma, almost like mushrooms and potatoes.
It’s challenging to compare sake to other alcoholic beverages. It has the dryness of white wine, but it’s sweeter. It is a one-of-a-kind taste sensation you can only understand once you’ve tried it yourself.
How Do You Drink Sake?
As every sake variety is unique, so are the best ways to enjoy it. Experimenting with your sake to see what you prefer, as whether you like it chilled, warm or room temperature is up to you.
Here are some tips to get you started on your sake journey.
- Work with the sake: In many cases, it’s best to serve ginjo and daiginjo sake varieties chilled to elevate their flavor and aroma. Warming junmai and honjozo can enhance their complex flavors and make them even smoother.
- Ask the experts: The staff who serve your beverages are experts who can recommend the best way to enjoy the sake of your choice.
- Heat and cool in moderation: Overheating or cooling your sake will detract from the taste and smell.
- Go slowly: If you are warming your sake, take your time. Decant it into a carafe and heat it gradually in a water bath to allow the flavors to develop.
- Experiment: Different temperatures can bring out many new flavors and aromas, so sample until you find the perfect way to enjoy your sake.
- Sip your sake: Don’t drink sake as a shot. It has a rich history, and you’ll maximize its flavor and texture by savoring it.
- Serve each other: Never serve yourself sake, but stick with Japanese customs and pour for your companions.
When to Drink Sake
There are no hard-and-fast rules for when to serve sake. Traditionally, sake pairs well with appetizers served at izakaya — casual Japanese restaurants similar to pubs. Sake is excellent for bringing out sushi’s complex flavors. Aside from tradition, you can drink sake at any point in a meal, including with desserts.
How to Serve Sake
The traditional way to serve sake is by pouring it from porcelain flasks called tokkuri into small porcelain receptacles known as o-choko or choko. Serving it conventionally may enhance your experience, but wide-rimmed wine glasses will do the trick if you want to stay more modern.
Once everyone has their sake in hand, it’s time to say “kanpai,” or “cheers.”
How Much Alcohol Is in Sake?
Sake often has an alcohol volume of between 15% and 17%, making it stronger than wine but not as potent as spirits like whiskey, which can be up to 40%. Many believe the sake alcohol percentage is much higher because the traditional serving size is so small. However, sake is not a shot.
If you’re looking for something more robust, genshu sake might fit the bill. Genshu does not get diluted with water during the brewing process, and has between 18% to 22% alcohol volume. There are also light and alcohol-free options available if you prefer.
7 Sakes to Try
If you’re new to sake and want to experiment, consider the following choices an excellent place to start.
1. Seikyo Takehara Junmai
If you’re looking for a traditional sake, this could be the one for you. It’s light and silky in your mouth, with a robust dryness and fresh mandarin undertone. This junmai has an excellent acidity balance and umami for any occasion.
2. Tonzai Snow Maiden Sake
This full-bodied, sweet nigori has a sweet, fruity aroma and a mellow, dry flavor. It’s a delicious choice for a dinner party, as the fresh fruit and creamy rice combination pair well with many foods.
3. Kanbara Bride of the Fox Sake
This light-bodied, semi-sweet junmai ginjo is full of the intense aromas of nuts, with a subtle hint of white chocolates. It’s clean and crisp, with a sweet aftertaste. You can pair it with meats or enjoy it on its own.
4. Momokawa Diamond Junmai Ginjo
This American junmai ginjo is medium-dry and crisp, with a nice balance of citrus flavors and water notes. It’s high-quality and versatile , perfect for seafood and grilled meat.
5. Ozeki Hana Awaka Sparkling Sake
This low-alcohol, sparkling alternative will give you all the tanginess you need. Enjoy this sweet, full-bodied sake with a floral overtone in a champagne glass on a hot day to feel light and refreshed.
6. Gekkeikan Black and Gold Sake
This well-balanced combination of traditional and haiku sake features the best of each fermentation, brought together to bring out the finest from both. This unbelievably smooth option boasts fresh citrus flavors with the slightest hint of toasted nuts, suitable for various occasions and food pairings.
7. Hana Lychee Sake
This gorgeous, lychee-infused sake captures the beauty of summer in a bottle. This multifaceted sake is delicious in a cocktail or on its own. It’s a sweet, medium-bodied and low-alcohol drink with an exotic, lingering finish to leave you wanting more.
Sake Food Pairings
Sake is a versatile beverage, and different varieties can complement almost any menu. Though sake is a staple pairing with Japanese cuisine, there is no need to limit yourself. You can enjoy sake with practically any dish, provided you consider how the flavors will work together.
To start, let’s look at the basics of sake food pairing.
Acidic and Salty Food
Salty and acidic foods such as oysters, fish with lemon sauces, vinegar-based salad dressings and roast chicken highlight sake’s fruity taste. If you choose a sweeter sake, the taste may become overwhelming. Instead, pair these foods with a dry sake. Light, dry sake is less complex, with a short, sharp aftertaste complementing these foods perfectly.
Rich, Meaty Food
Meaty food with plenty of umami brings out sake’s dryness and acidity, overshadowing the sweet and fruity tones. Depending on how rich you’d like your dining experience to be, you could pair your meal with a sweeter sake for a subtler addition to complete the occasion with a lively and aromatic flavor.
A bolder, aged sake can also be a pairing for rich foods like steak, meat ragu or matured cheese. Full-bodied sakes can complement the rich flavors.
Spicy foods often make sake taste a little drier, so consider a sweeter choice to counterbalance the taste explosion.
Sweet Food and Desserts
When paired with sweet foods, dry sake can taste flat. Try matching the food’s sweetness with your sake pairing and go for a fruitier option.
Sake Pairing Pointers
When in doubt, keep the following basics in mind for a perfect sake pairing:
- Light and dry sake pairs well with sushi and other light food.
- Light and sweet sake is excellent with lightly fried food such as shrimp.
- Rich and dry sake makes a beautiful addition to umami-rich meals, meats and hearty stews.
- Consult the helpful staff you purchase your sake from, as they have excellent advice for pairing individual sake options with your meal.
Try a Sakura Martini
Keep this delicious sake cocktail recipe handy when you’re hosting an event or looking to try something new. For one cocktail, you will need 5 tablespoons of ginjo sake, 5 teaspoons of gin, 1/8 of a teaspoon of maraschino cherry liqueur and one salt-pickled cherry blossom.
Combine the sake, gin and cherry liqueur in a cocktail mixer filled with ice, stir and chill. Strain the mixture into a martini glass and garnish with the cherry blossom for a delicious and sophisticated addition to your occasion.
Stock up on Sake With Marketview Liquor
If you’re itching to try some sake, Marketview Liquor can help you find the perfect match and ship it to you. Our professional and knowledgeable staff can provide you with all the information you need to make the ideal sake choice, whether you’re hosting an event or looking to enjoy a quiet night in with a delicious dinner.
Marketview Liquor offers you a quality selection of beverages at competitive prices. As a family-run business, we pride ourselves on going the extra mile to provide you with personalized service. Whatever you feel like drinking, you’ll find your favorite drinks and many new ones at Marketview Liquor. Please feel free to browse our sake selection at your leisure and purchase by the case or bottle. Alternatively, contact us today, and one of our experienced professionals will be happy to answer your questions and provide food pairing ideas to make your sake stand out.