Pure junmai ginjo sake polished to 60 percent. Features floral aromas with some fruity notes. Pairs well with zesty salads, beef dishes, or brunch fare. Enjoy it in warm weather. 16.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Red wine drinkers new to sake may be put off.
Notes can be described as zesty, as flavours of lime, mandarin blossom, and jasmine are noticeable with each sip. Bold and fruity flavour goes well with many foods. Artisan crafted in small batches.
18 percent ABV may not appeal to all sake connoisseurs.
Bold, rich, sumptuous sake that may appeal to red wine drinkers. Floral, fruity, and zesty notes. Enjoy before, during, or after dinner, particularly heavier meals. Terrific price for quality sake.
Not ideal for those who prefer a more subdued flavour.
Combines subtle notes of apricot, floral, and pepper for a traditional flavour that's as versatile as it is delicious. Also contains hints of chestnut and citrus. Appeals to those who prefer a dry sake.
Lacks sweetness. The intensity of the fruitiness is fairly mild.
Complex and potent fruitiness includes mandarin and apple, with floral notes of honeysuckle and peach blossoms. Crisp, easy-drinking taste enjoyed on its own or with meals. Fans of white burgundy will taste similarities.
May not appeal to bold red wine drinkers.
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A beloved drink in Japan that dates back well past the Middle Ages is sake. Of late, sake has surged in popularity around the world as a refreshing libation. It shares some of the characteristics of wine and beer, but undoubtedly, sake is its own unique beverage.
While sake is often referred to as rice wine, that term can be misleading. Newcomers to sake can benefit from learning how it compares and contrasts with other alcoholic beverages. Sake doesn’t undergo the same fermentation process as wine. Rather, it follows a process similar to that of beer in which starch is turned into alcohol. Still, sake may be aromatic, flavourful, nutty, dry, or sweet like wine.
Sake comes in many different varieties, and for those who have yet to properly engage with sake, the options can seem overwhelming. This guide details the basics of sake: what it is, how it’s made, and how its taste may be tweaked through different processes. We wish you an exciting journey as you explore the exciting world of sake and all it has to offer.
From bottle to bottle, sake boasts a wide range of flavours, aromas, and textures. You may find fruity notes like strawberry, apple, banana, and melon, herbal flavours like grass, or even a creaminess or nuttiness to the drink. Sake may be sweet and sour or dry. It may have a short or long finish. Indeed, sake is quite diverse, so while finding the right bottle may take time, there is surely one to fit your taste.
The alcohol by volume (ABV) content of sake is generally 14% to 16%. By comparison, most wines have an ABV of 11.5% to 13.5%. Sake is far less acidic than wine, so many types lack the crisp bite that is familiar to wine drinkers. Sake also has some regional differences, but they’re not as distinct as those of wine. Still, like wine, you can find options that are dry and bitter (similar to some red wines) or sweet and floral (like some white wines).
The degree to which the rice is polished is one of the most important factors in determining the taste, and most often the quality, of the sake. The outer layer of rice is removed to make it more refined and thus more suitable for brewing. The percentage of rice that remains after polishing is referred to as the “polishing ratio.” Polishing is sometimes referred to as milling. There are three possible levels of polishing noted on the bottle.
Junmai: Junmai is pure rice sake that includes no additives or extras. It’s made only from rice, yeast, water, and koji (fungus). For sake to be labelled as junmai, the rice must be polished to at least 70%. Junmai sake tends to be rich, full, and slightly acidic. It is usually served warm and doesn’t have much of an aroma.
Ginjo: With rice polished down to 60%, ginjo sake incorporates unique yeast and fermentation processes to yield a fragrant, fruity drink. This type of sake is fairly easy to drink and usually served chilled. Some ginjo sake does not contain any additives or extras and is thus referred to as a junmai ginjo sake.
Daiginjo: Like ginjo, daiginjo is a sake of higher quality featuring rice that’s been polished down to 50%. This sake tends to be complex and light, and it often wears a steeper price tag. Daijingo may also come in a junmai variety made from pure rice with no additives.
Sake can be enjoyed chilled, warmed, or at room temperature. The ideal temperature is determined by the type of sake you’re enjoying as well as your own personal preference. Changing the temperature may enhance aromas and flavours or make the sake easier to drink.
Once you’ve determined at what temperature to enjoy your sake, it’s time to serve it. Often, sake is served from an authentic porcelain flask into porcelain or ceramic cups or saucers. The flasks are known as tokkuri, while the cups are referred to as choko. Another receptacle to enjoy sake in is known as a maso, which is a small box also used to serve rice.
One glass of sake is around 175 millilitres, which is comparable to a smaller glass of wine. It’s customary to pour sake for your guests before pouring yourself a cup.
As sake has gained in popularity around the world, many countries outside of Japan produce their own. The United States and China are large producers, while Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam also make their own sake. Australia and Brazil also produce sake. Norway is a rare European country that makes it. Imported bottles of sake tend to cost more than those made domestically.
Unlike wine, most sake doesn’t improve with age. In fact, it should be opened and enjoyed within a year after it was made. Most sake undergoes six months of aging in the production process but no more.
In certain cases, breweries make sake that is meant to be aged, but this is rare. With sake, newer is almost always better.
Outside of the top three common classifications of sake — junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo — there are many other types and varieties that are influenced during and after the fermentation process. Here are a few other notable types of sake you may encounter.
Honjozo: This type of sake incorporates a bit of distilled brewer’s alcohol to round out the flavour and aroma, making it smoother and easier to drink. In honjozo sake, the rice is polished to 70%. This type tends to be lighter and easier to drink for most. It’s typically served warm.
Futsuu: At the other end of the spectrum is futsuu, which is often referred to as table sake. It features little polish, usually between 70% and 90%, and is rather inexpensive. There may be rare futsuu finds that are enjoyable, but on the whole, most of it is more convenient than it is tasty.
Shiboritate: This sake forgoes aging to become something exceptional fruity, aromatic, and rich. Shiboritate sake tends to be polarizing since it’s strong, but it offers some unique and exciting flavours.
Namazake: This sake is unpasteurized and tends to be fruity, fresh, and somewhat sweet. It must be refrigerated to preserve flavour and quality. Namazake can be junmai or ginjo sake.
Nigori: For something rich and creamy, be sure to check out nigori. This cloudy white sake includes bits of rice and makes for something sweet and often thick. Some options may be chunky while others are smooth.
Jizake: If you’re travelling through small towns and regions in Japan, you may want to partake in Jizake, or “local sake.” These beverages vary greatly in quality, but they tend to be pure, fresh, and inexpensive. The taste is often unique and charming.
Koshu: As mentioned, some sake is aged. Koshu is that sake. Usually, koshu will be aged for three years and result in a rich, round, smooth taste.
Sparkling: Like wine, some sake may be sparkling through natural fermentation or by adding carbonation after the fact. This makes for a great drink before a meal.
Sake set: Kotobuki Kinzana Sake Set
As mentioned, sake is best enjoyed with a specific bottle and cup. We love this beautiful ceramic sake set from Kotobuki that includes a tokkuri and four choko. The set is made in Japan.
Wine glass charms: Fred & Friends Kitty Glass Markers
Regardless of whether you have an authentic sake set for serving, you can still give each person a distinct glass with these cute kitty wine markers. The set of six charms is also available in dog, koala, and sloth iterations.
Inexpensive: You can find a decent bottle of sake for under $25. Bottles in this price range typically have a higher polishing ratio; you’d be hard-pressed to find premium daiginjo options here.
Mid-range: Many bottles of quality sake range from $25 to $50. These may have a lower polishing ratio and are likely be of the junmai variety.
Expensive: High-quality sake, particularly daiginjo or junmai daiginjo, costs $50 or more. Some bottles from historic and trusted sources run over $100.
Experiment. Doing your research will steer you in the right direction, but like wine and beer, sake is diverse and best sampled to find your preference. Don’t be afraid to try new types to figure out what you love.
Learn Japanese. While you don’t need to undertake a massive endeavour to learn a new language, it’s worthwhile to familiarise yourself with some Japanese symbols. Comprehending frequently used sake terms will help you identify a bottle that’s right for you.
Ask for recommendations. There’s no shame in asking questions about sake, especially as you’re learning. When reading a menu or shopping at a store, ask experts for suggestions.
Warm or chill slowly. Sake does not do well with sudden temperature changes or extremes. Heat or cool your sake moderately, and avoid venturing too high or low so the flavours remain unharmed.
Q. How should I store sake?
A. Like red wine, sake is best kept in a cool, dry place out of the sun. If it isn’t pasteurised, it should be kept in the refrigerator. Once opened, you have about a week to enjoy your sake before it turns bad. Note that it tastes best in the first few days after opening.
Q. How should I heat up and cool down sake?
A. Avoid heating sake directly; instead, use a carafe or glass. Warm the receptacle, which will in turn warm the sake. Avoid the microwave; you may instead try immersing the sake in a vessel in a warm bath. Avoid a rapid increase in temperature, and keep it under around 43°C. Cooling sake can be done in the refrigerator or with a cool bath.
Q. What kind of food should I pair with sake?
A. Sake is a versatile beverage that pairs well with many different meals. Not surprisingly, it pairs well with Japanese cuisine, particularly fish. It’s often best paired with salty or fermented foods or fatty meats enjoyed around the world.
Dry and bitter sake is best with meats and heavier meals. Floral, aromatic sake complements lighter fare, like salad or white meat. Sake may have a strong umami flavour that is best paired with fried food or dishes featuring mushrooms.