How to enjoy Sake

Many stereotypes remain about sake: it’s only drunk warm, it’s too strong for most people, it gives you a terrible hangover. These misconceptions are found in Japan as well as overseas, but—personal tastes asides—they are entirely unfounded. Some background knowledge about sake and a good grasp of how to get the most out of it should break down many of these misconceptions, but the best way to really get to know sake is simply to drink it.

1. The Basics

What is sake made from?

Unlike wine, sake is made from rice. The rice used for sake is not the same as that which is eaten; rather, sake is made from shumai, or brewer’s rice, in other words rice grown specifically to be made into sake. Like wine, however, sake is fermented; it is not distilled like whisky or spirits. The primary ingredient of sake is rice; the rice is converted into sugar, and that sugar into alcohol. Sake is made by a process, known as multiple parallel fermentation, which is more complex and more unique that that used in winemaking. Sake is not like wine; it is not made from the juice of grapes. More than 80% of any bottle of sake is water; sake is sometimes referred to as “water that has passed through rice”. This is why many breweries are located in regions with abundant supplies of mineral rich water.

Is sake very strong?

Sake is generally around 15-17% ABV, which makes it just a little stronger than most wine. The fact that it’s clear and tends to be served in small glasses can be misleading, however, with many assuming it to be as strong as clear spirits such as vodka or rum. In reality, the strongest sake—genshu, for example—is only around 22%, which is the same strength as port.

Does sake have to be drunk warm?

The simple answer is no. Each sake will have its own optimal temperature, and many sake will drink well served either hot or cold. For others, heating will only serve to mask otherwise outstanding flavours; equally, serving some sake cold may lead to a distinctly underwhelming experience.

In recent years, the techniques employed in sake making have advanced, allowing such developments as premium sake, such as ginjoshu. Premium sake tend to be better served colder, at around 5-10°C; it is at this temperature that the scent and flavour are best enhanced. Equally, non-premium sake or sake that is slightly lower in quality can benefit from being warmed before drinking; the heat helps to disguise any bitterness or unpleasant taste that might otherwise be detectable.

In a way, the key to the success of a sake lies in the temperature at which it is drunk. A different temperature can totally change the way the drink tastes. And varying the temperature will reveal the “multiple personalities” of the sake.

Why is sake drunk in a small cup?

It’s certainly the case that sake is often served in small cups, called o-choko. However, there is an argument that the fragrance and flavour of some sake can be best enjoyed in larger receptacles, such as wine glasses. Still, sometimes smaller cups will be better. Sake is an incredibly versatile drink: and the way that it is drunk can be adapted to the situation too.

Why is sake so expensive compared to wine? 

The UK is a representative example of a country where wines from all over the world can be drunk at very reasonable prices. Unfortunately, however, sake from Japan is currently unable to compete entirely on price alone. This is because of the import volumes; the benefits of mass import have yet to be felt and the necessary logistics are not yet fully in place. There is the additional factor of the exchange rate with Japanese yen. As sake becomes more popular, it should become possible to enjoy sake at a lower price.

How should we keep sake bottles?

As with wine, sake is best kept in cool and dark conditions; a refrigerator is best. However, sake isn’t stored in corked bottles, like wine, so there’s no need to be too particular about temperature or about storing on its sides. It’s not aged in the bottle, so it’s best to keep it in the fridge after purchase.

How long does sake last after opening?

The good news is that a bottle of sake will last much longer after opening than a bottle of wine. Keep it in the fridge and it should be fine for 2-3 weeks.

2. Technical Talk

What determines the quality of sake?

The quality of sake will depend upon its seimaido, or seimaibuai; this term refers to the extent to which the grains of rice have been polished before being made into sake. Put simply, the higher the polishing ratio, the higher the quality. This will also be reflected in the price of the sake. This is most obviously seen in ginjo and daiginjo categories. This is different again, of course, to the way in which wine is ranked.

What determines the character of sake?

There are significant differences with wine here, too; water plays a crucial part in determining the character of sake. It’s particularly important that it is soft water, which is why it’s so difficult to make sake here in the UK.

Is rice variety as important as grape variety in wine?

The character of wine is fundamentally affected by the variety of grape used to make it. With sake, however, the variety of rice used is not mirrored so clearly in sake. So, it seems that the specific taste characteristics of rice do not have the same impact on sake as those of grape variety have on wine. The characteristics of sake will, however, be affected by the way in which it is made. People do not generally select sake according to the variety of rice used. This is likely one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to accurately identify sake when conducting blind tastings.

What about terroir or regionality in sake? 

The answer to this question is both yes and no. The water used to make sake is invariably locally sourced, and the characteristics and properties of this water will be reflected in the finished sake. The other main ingredient, rice, is often sourced from outside the local vicinity, however. It is certainly the case that different sake from similar regions share some characteristics—sake produced in regions near the coast differs from sake produced in inland regions. It is also the case that local food traditions will affect the characteristics of locally produced sake; until fairly recently, most sake was made for local consumption. The policy of the brewery will also affect the characteristics of the sake produced, so of course it is not the case that all sake produced in a certain area will taste similar. Having said that, there are certain characteristics that are associated with sake from certain regions: otokozake (“male sake”) from Nada, said to be dry and robust; onnazake (“female sake”) from Fushimi, said to be mild and soft; tanrei (“crisp and dry”) from Niigata.

Why doesn’t sake have vintages?

In a way, sake is like house Champagne; regardless of the quality of the grapes in the harvest, a product must be made that tastes the same, every year, and consumers do not expect or necessarily want the taste to change according to vintage. With rice, however, you simply don’t get the sort of significant quality disparity seen in grape harvests, and rice can be purchased from outside of the prefecture in which the brewery is located, so a bad harvest doesn’t have to mean no (good) sake. Compared to wine, which really does depend on the quality of the harvest in the year of its vintage, the quality of sake depends on the skills of the brewer. That does mean, of course, that the sake enjoyed year in year out depends on the skills of the brewery in question being maintained.

Does sake age well? 

In most cases, it is best to drink sake promptly once the bottle has been opened. The “best before” period does differ according from sake to sake, but sake isn’t really intended to be kept for long periods, like wine. In almost all cases, it’s better to consume sake purchased within 1-2 years. Sake labeling doesn’t reference the vintage, so when buying sake, make sure to take a look at the production date, which will be indicated somewhere on the label.

3. Food Pairing

Does sake go with non-Japanese food, too?

Sake is not a drink that can only be paired successfully with Japanese food. There’s a saying about sake, in fact, pithily translated by British sake brewer Philip Harper as “sake does not get into fights with food” (sake wa ryori wo erabanai). Sake is an incredibly generous drink; it does not overpower and works well in harmony with other elements. This versability is a real feature of sake, and it works as a great passport for sake; allowing it to work with non-Japanese food and to be accepted onto non-Japanese markets.

Why is this? It’s thanks to the unique properties of sake. Sake isn’t as outspoken as wine, it has traditionally been seen as more of an accompaniment to a meal, working to delicately enhance the food served. It is unusual for sake to pair badly with food, as can be the case with wine, where there can be clashes and combinations in which the wine overpowers the food. The acidity of sake is not as strong as that of wine, which makes it gentler on the stomach in general. Sake also contains comparatively high levels of amino acids, which impart umami. This may also be a reason why sake pairs so well with cuisines other than Japanese.

4. Sake & Culture

Is sake any good for health and beauty?

Sake really is a drink of discovery. Some people have noticed that their skin seems more moisturized after drinking sake. Sake also has less of an after effect on people the following day. In Japan, sake has long been taken medicinally; it’s said that it’s better to drink a little than not to drink at all, for example. The key, of course, is how much you define “a little” to be. Amino acids, which are found in sake (there are no other drinks with such a high level of amino acids), work to boost circulation, to reduce cholesterol levels, and to prevent liver cancer, according to various presentations made by specialists. In Japan, sake is used in facial toner, and some even like to pour their leftover sake into the bath for a luxury bathing experience.