A Beginner’s Guide to Good Sake

Choosing a good sake isn't as intimidating as you might think

Sake has been a staple of Japanese culture for well over 1,000 years, but how much do you know about the beverage. Better yet, do you know how to properly order it? Let’s discuss.

What Exactly is Sake?

When you think “Sake” you’re likely thinking about about the beverage itself, but did you know the term Sake actually just means alcohol in Japan? The rice-based drink that we know as sake is actually called ‘nihonshu’.

Also, Sake is commonly referred to as “rice wine” which isn’t entirely accurate. While, yes it does use rice as the main starch, the process is much more aligned to beer making. Like beer, sake brewers take rice, water, a type of mold spore called “koji,” and yeast to create the final product. There is also a huge variety of outcomes depending on more than just the type of rice used, which there are over 70 different varieties!

First, there’s polishing. This is how the rice is processed. An easy way to understand this is brewers take time in removing the protein and fat from the rice to isolate the pure starch. The more polishing, the more time and effort, and thus the more expensive the sake.

Then there’s the fermentation stage. Once the rice is polished it is then washed, soaked, and steamed, and the koji mold is introduced. Next, a yeast is introduced to a small portion of rice, koji, and water, where it creates alcohol. The brewer gradually increases the amount of the ingredients to the tank, and from two weeks to a month, fermentation is complete.

How to Choose a Good Sake

Like beer or wine, Sake is not just one style. There are a number of styles, and these will impact the overall flavours, not to mention the price point. Some styles to be aware of:

  • Daiginjo- The super premium level of sake production. A minimum 50% polishing ratio occurs, with little distilled alcohol added. This is very fragrant.
  • Ginjo- Premium sake. A minimum of 40% polish, with similar taste profiles to the Daiginjo category.
  • Honjozo- Polished to 70%, these sakes have a small amount of distilled alcohol added to them. Not as light as Ginjo or Daiginjo, but a good entry level for beginners.
  • Junmai- Pure sake made from nothing but rice, water, yeast and koji. There is no minimum polish, and often tends to be fuller bodied than other styles.

To be clear, there are benefits and reasons for drinking all of the above; but if you’re looking for a safe bet when unsure about what sake to purchase, looking for “Ginjo” on the bottle is a fair indicator of a high quality sake.

Here’s a handy chart to help with understanding polish to flavour


Warm or Cold?

While there is no hard or fast rule here, it’s generally agreed that lighter, fruitier styles like Ginjo and Daiginjo are best served cold, as this helps highlight the delicate flavours. Junmai and Honjozo, meanwhile, are more versatile and can be served either way; these are typically the types of sake that you’ll find served warm at Japanese restaurants.

Be careful of not taking it to the extreme though. Too hot or cold will mute any nuances to the sake, making your experience less enjoyable.

Another thing to keep in mind is that yes, you can store an open bottle of sake, and for longer than you think. An open bottle will last a few weeks in a fridge, but sake is best drank fresh as the flavours will start to soften the longer you keep it after opening.

Try tasting sake like you would wine. Examine the colour, aroma, texture and after taste. Eventually you’ll find a sake you truly enjoy!

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