Sake: A Beginner’s Guide To Drinking Japan’s Favorite Alcohol

Informational

Two people enjoying sake

Have you ever tried Japan’s national beverage, sake? This Japanese alcohol is a fermented rice-based drink with a distinct flavor and aroma that distinguishes it from other drinks. While sake is available in a range of varieties, such as beer or wine, the sensation of drinking sake is somewhat different.

Today, sake is not only consumed in Japan and other southeast countries but is also loved by many people all around the world. If you want to learn more about this traditional drink and the various types of sake, keep on reading!

Sake or Nihonshu?

In Japan, the term “sake” refers to alcoholic beverages in general. Therefore beer, wine, shochu, and the sake that we are familiar with are all called sake. Japanese sake is known as “nihonshu” in Japan. So, if you ever visit Japan and want to drink sake, call it 'nihonshu' instead.

What Does Sake Taste Like?

Woman enjoying a cup of sake

Sake is manufactured by combining rice, water, and koji mold in a method that has evolved over generations. It is a mildly sweet, clean-tasting beverage with an astringent sensation that complements its savory flavor. It has a somewhat fruity and nutty fragrance, similar to a milder form of wine. 

The slight scent of sake will dissipate after being poured into a glass. It won't make you feel bloated. It does, however, leave a lingering aftertaste. Koji imparts a smell to the sake that is a mix of potato and mushroom.

Types of Sake

Tokkuri and ochoko

There are many different types of sake, each with its own distinct flavor profile, and you may pair sake with food in the same way that you can with wine. Sake can be classified based on the intensity of rice polishing, how much alcohol was added, and some other special types.

  • Junmai

Junmai means "pure rice" in Japanese. Only water, yeast, and koji are used to brew the junmai rice that is polished to 70%. It's claimed to have a full-bodied, powerful flavor that's somewhat acidic. 

  • Honjonzo

Honjozo is manufactured from rice that has been refined to a minimum of 70%. Honjozo is frequently spiked with a small quantity of distilled brewer's alcohol to enhance the sake's flavor and fragrance. Honjozo sakes are typically drier, have less acidity, and are less aromatic than pure sake.

  • Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo

Ginjo is made out of 60% milled rice, water, koji, yeast, and distilled alcohol. To better regulate the fermentation process, it's frequently brewed in smaller amounts. It has a mild, fruity, and nuanced flavor that is usually fairly aromatic.

Junmai ginjo is a pure rice sake created with a low-temperature fermentation technique. There is no distilled alcohol in this recipe.

  • Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo

Daiginjo is a high-end ginjo sake created using rice that has been polished to at least 50% of its original size and infused with distilled alcohol. It also involves the use of precise brewing techniques. Daiginjo sakes are light, fruity, and aromatic, yet they may be costly. 

On the other hand, junmai daiginjo is daiginjo sake that hasn't been brewed using distilled alcohol and is considered the greatest quality of sake. It's also fermented slowly and carefully at low temperatures.

  • Nigori

This particular sake is a cloudy variant with rice sediments floating around inside, so it is usually referred to as unfiltered sake. Nigori sake is sweet, creamy, and dense by character. It is urged that this sake be served chilled rather than warm.

  • Nama

Unpasteurized liquids are referred to as nama in Japan. Nama sake is sterilized by passing it through a succession of micro-filters rather than using traditional heat-based pasteurization. It has a more vibrant and bright character.

  • Genshu

In Japanese, the word genshu means "original." Genshu is sake that hasn't had any water added to it before bottling. Its greater alcohol content, about 18-19%, makes it ideal for pairing with heavier dishes or as an after-dinner drink.

  • Sparkling Sake

This sake undergoes a secondary fermentation process, which imparts a mild and sweet taste to the alcohol. The alcohol content per volume is lower than in other varieties of sake.

  • Infused Sake

This is a trendy type of sake because fruits like apple, raspberry, and cherry flavors are added to the beverage. It's tropical and sweet, and it's perfect for making drinks.

  • Kimoto or Yamahai

These types of sake have a similar method of production. Both need more time to develop because the yeast starter is created in a more labor-intensive manner without adding lactic acid. Both also tend to give sake a gamier, more prominent taste.

Where to Buy Sake

Atsukan or hot sake

If you're in the United States, a well-stocked liquor store will have drinking sake. You may not only get them at Japanese or Asian supermarkets that are licensed to sell alcohol, but you may also buy them online.

One of the six sake brewers in the United States and a sake distributor as well. Premium saké and shochu are imported solely from Japanese brewery owners, such as the Murai Family and Kasumi Tsuru.

Vine Connections is one of the six sake brewers in America, and they have been importing delicious Japanese alcohol for over 20 years.

Tippsy's goal is to make sake accessible and enjoyable. Tippsy has one of the most incredible sake selections of any online sake retailer. Additionally, the shop's product pages provide graphics and taste criteria to help you make an informed decision.

It is the world's largest online reseller of sake, as well as one of the greatest sake clubs. Sake 101 is a section on the website that provides all required information on Japan’s national beverage. Sake Social is very convenient to navigate as it has one of the most extensive search menus.

True Sake was the very first sake shop outside of Japan to open. It was started in 2002 and has since become the leading shop in San Francisco for hand-selling sake.

Takara Sake USA inc. is a part of the Takara Group, Japan's leading alcoholic beverage business and biotech company. Takara has been making sake for more than 150 years.

Takara has a tremendous obligation to preserve the natural environment because its primary commercial initiatives rely heavily on the knowledge of natural processes such as fermentation.

Sakaya first emerged and opened in New York in December 2007. The goal of Sakaya is to introduce, educate, and familiarize customers with the delights of consuming sake and matching it with food. They aim to provide a learning experience that fosters an understanding and love of sake and the culture where it comes from.  

The sake selection on the Napa Cabs website is impressive. Almost 170 distinct sake alternatives are available, as affordable as $6 to over $100. Sake is also available in half-bottles and cans in this store.

How to Drink Sake

Pouring and receiving sake

A sake set is used while drinking sake the traditional way. It consists of a porcelain flask and small ceramic cups known as tokkuri, sakazuki, or ochoko. Traditional wine glasses can be used to serve chilled sake. 

A glass of sake will be put in a masu at major Japanese events such as birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, or holidays. Masu is a little cedar wooden box that complements historically made sake since it was formerly brewed in wooden barrels. 

In Japanese culture, you pour beverages for others, but not for oneself. Lift the cup and grasp it with two hands while you're being offered sake. Hold the sakazuki with one hand while using the other to hold the bottom.

The sake is poured from a tokkuri by the person sitting next to you. When it's your time to serve the sake, use both hands to pour it.

Here’s a video showing a master chef teaching how to drink a sake:

How to Enjoy Sake

Sake is available in various tastes, each with its own level of richness and refinement. Moreover, sake is served at different temperatures, depending on the sake, season, and personal preference. 

Hiya and atsukan are the two most common methods to enjoy sake. The cold style is hiya where the sake, tokkuri, and ochoko are refrigerated. Atsukan, on the other hand, is served warm or hot where the sake is heated in a tokkuri over hot water. 

Some sakes are better when drank hiya style, while others are better when consumed atsukan style. Some are fantastic either way. The aroma and flavor of sake may alter considerably depending on its temperature.

Most quality sake is best consumed chilled or at room temperature. Cheaper and less savory or flavorful sake is finer when served hot, especially during the chilly winter months. Don’t be embarrassed to consult the server for advice if you're unsure!

Sake Food Pairing

Sake and different dishes

One of the most surprising aspects about sake is how well it combines with any dish, and not only Japanese dishes but cuisine around the world. Sake may be paired with different food depending on an individual’s preference, but here are some tips on sake food pairing.

It pairs nicely with fish, shrimp, and delicately seared meals for sweet and light sake. Protein-rich dished match well with the sweet and rich sake. 

While for dry and light sake, light foods with a clean finish like sashimi and sushi are ideal complements. Rice and other heavy meals pair well with dry and rich sake.

Sake Guide FAQ

1. Do you take a shot of sake?

Sake is a ceremonial beverage that has been perfected over hundreds of years, so it should be consumed respectably. As a result, never take a shot of your sake as if you’re drinking tequila or you wouldn’t appreciate its taste and essence. Serving it in a tiny drinking cup and sipping it like a glass of tea or good wine is the finest way to enjoy it.

2. Can you get drunk on sake?

Like other alcoholic beverages, sake may get you intoxicated. It is not as intense as rum or vodka, but it is stronger than most beers at an alcohol content of 15% to 17%.

3. Do you need to age the sake before drinking?

No. Practically all sake is designed to be drunk when it is still young and fresh. One exception is koshu, which is sake meant to be aged before being consumed.

Conclusion

Sake is a drink with many varieties and can have different tastes. If you are interested in trying sake, be sure to keep it simple at first. You may find that this delicious drink has become one of your favorites after all!

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