How to Drink Sake: Your Guide to Japan's Tasty, Boozy Gift to the World

By Bryan Lufkin on at

Sake. You might only know it from Sapporo bombs or overheated swill from all-you-can-eat pan-Asian buffets. But if you get a beat on its basics, it’s the smoothest, sexiest, slickest libation. We’re going to demystify sake, and make you that sashimi-pairing, worldly boozehound we know you can be.

What Is Sake?

It’s an alcohol brewed from rice. Its alcohol content ranges from 13% to 20%, and it’s been produced in Japan for 2,500 years.

Some people call sake “rice wine,” but that’s not exactly right, because it isn’t a wine. It’s brewed, so beer is a better analogue. But sake is like wine in that there are countless varieties spanning a full flavour spectrum: You’ll find sweet notes of caramel and bananas, plus earthier flavours like musty mushrooms, or acidic lychee, or mixes of pear and bamboo. Sake is complex, but at the same time, really subtle.

And that’s part of why it might be intimidating to some Westerners. Some people may have trouble even describing what it tastes like because they’ve never had anything like it before.

How to Drink Sake: Your Guide to Japan's Tasty, Boozy Gift to the World

“I like sake.”—James Bond. Credit: YouTube

Sake’s gaining popularity across the globel: Last year, Japan made a record-breaking £34 million on worldwide sake exports in the first half of 2014 alone. This is especially nuts, as sake is actually declining in popularity in Japan, being displaced among young people by wine or Japan’s best-in-the-world whisky, which is being launched to the International Space Station for experiments that’ll look at microgravity’s effect on alcohol. The Japanese government is even developing a bilingual app that translates Japanese sake labels for tourists.

How to Drink Sake: Your Guide to Japan's Tasty, Boozy Gift to the World

These straw barrels in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park are built to hold sake. Credit: Shutterstock

How Is It Made?

It’s pretty complicated. So, first, you have to grow great, short-grain rice (no problem for Japan there), and then refine it so it’s white. That’s easy. You also need pristine water. Also easy for Japan, considering its natural network of mountainous, crystal-clear springs. But then the brewing process gets interesting and complex, thanks to a nifty mould spore.

To make sake, you have to combine that high-quality rice and high-quality water with yeast and koji—a microorganism integral to sake-making. The yeast feasts on the sugar that’s produced when koji’s mouldy enzymes react with the rice’s starch. Adding koji is critical, because rice doesn’t contain any sugar on its own, and you need sugar to ferment something into alcohol.

After the outer shells of the rice grains are stripped away—the more that’s removed, the sweeter the taste—the rice is steamed. Then, the grains are sprinkled with that magic, green, mouldy koji. After days of fermentation, the sake can be filtered, pasteurised, and bottled. Each of these different steps can be slightly tweaked, which yields different sake types.

How to Drink Sake: Your Guide to Japan's Tasty, Boozy Gift to the World

Sake master Misa Kawaisi cools steamed rice that’ll be used in sake in Himeji, Japan. Credit: Getty

What Are the Different Types?

Sake can be broken down into many different categories. Some are sweet, some are dry. Some are cloudy, some are clear. Filtered, unfiltered. All of these factor into flavour.

It’s also important to remember that within many of these types below exist further sub-types, and there are more types that exist besides these listed. It’s not an exhaustive list, and the whole idea of this guide is to avoid overwhelming you, so here’s a broad cheat sheet. Glimpse at it while you’re impressing your date over sashimi.

Ginjo: Fruity, light, and non-acidic, it’s made when 40% or more of the rice’s outer layer is removed. Drink it with seafood, which of course, Japanese cuisine has in spades.

Junmai: Made with only rice, koji, and water. Not sweet, but more acidic, earthy, and umami, the “sixth” flavour found in savoury Japanese cuisine.

Daiginjo: Higher quality than ginjo—it’s more polished, with at least 50% of the rice’s outer shell removed, so the taste is stronger and more refined. (It’s also pricier.)

Junmai Daiginjo: Regarded as the highest quality sake, according to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Administration. A good mix of refined crispness and umami.

Honjozo: Similar to junmai, but fortified with distilled alcohol, making it a bit lighter and smoother.

Nigorizake: It’s cloudy because it’s full of yeast and rice particles due to low filtering. The rice flavour is strong with this one.

Genshu: No water is added post-production, so it’s some of the strongest, with an alcohol content closing in on 20%.

For those new to sake, ginjo or junmai are the most basic, and thus, most recommended for beginners.

How Do I Drink It?

You can drink it one of two ways: warm or cold.

Notice I didn’t say hot. This stuff shouldn’t be served a tea temperatures. That’d obliterate sake’s already delicate flavours. There are some types of sake that can be served hot, but they’re generally lower quality. As a rule, the finer the sake, the more sensitive it is to heat. When in doubt, scope out the label on the bottle for recommendations.

Usually, though, it should either be served cold—like, right out of the fridge—or barely warmed. And if served cold, do not put ice in it, as it dilutes the flavour. In Japan, the serving style is often guided by the current season.

We should also quickly address pronunciation when you’re ordering. You can go two ways here: the Westernised “sah-kee” or the correct “sah-keh.” You might be afraid of sounding like one of those pedantic game show contestants by saying the latter, but since that’s how it’s pronounced by the people from the place where the stuff was invented, that’s how I say it.

And that’s how bartenders at the growing number of American bars that serve it say it, too. Those folks will also help usher you into the wonderful world of sake. At New York’s Cherry, bartender Warren Hode and certified sake sommelier Chris Johnson think that sake is complex, but a totally rewarding beverage to learn about.

As far as pairing it with foods, viewing it as a white wine is a good baseline. It goes great with fish, vegetables, chicken, and sweeter ones go great with fruits and dessert.

“Look for parallels, contrast and places where the sake can fill the void, or provide a flavour that complements the dish,” says Johnson, describing how to pair sake with foods. “A fruity ginjo with a slightly spicy tuna tartar, a creamy textured aromatic sake with seared scallops, the layered, fennel and basil-nuanced sake from Niigata prefecture with a Nicoise salad, an earthy, bold Yamahai junmai with roasted chicken, nigori sake with barbecue or chocolate. It just keeps going.”

How to Drink Sake: Your Guide to Japan's Tasty, Boozy Gift to the World

Sake’s enjoyed a boost in global popularity. Here, the first couples of America and Japan share a toast at the White House in April. Credit: AP

Can I Make Cocktails with It?

Sure. Here are a few, courtesy of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. Nowadays, a lot of the larger liquor stores in your area will carry sake, but you can also order online from plenty of places, like Sake Social or True Sake.

Notice that these recipes from JSSMA stay true to the general Japanese flavour profile: Simple, delicate ingredients that don’t annihilate the taste of the sake. “Sake is very complex, but very subtle at the same time—it’s made with the Japanese palette in mind,” says Cherry mixologist Hobbs. “Right now, Americans like big, bold flavours. They want to smoke everything, for example. That’s not really the philosophy behind this stuff.”

Sake Highball
2 oz/59ml sake
2 oz/59ml soda water
Fill an 300ml glass with ice, add sake, and top off with soda.

Nigorizake Milkshake
2 oz/59ml nigorizake
2 oz/59ml milk
Pour milk into a rocks glass filled with ice and sake, then stir slowly.

Green Iced Tea
2 oz/59ml sake
2 oz/59ml Japanese green tea
Pour green tea into a rocks glass filled with ice and sake, then stir slowly.

Sake Cassis
2 oz/59ml sake
1 teaspoon crème de cassis
Pour crème de cassis into a wine glass filled with ice and sake, then stir slowly.

How to Drink Sake: Your Guide to Japan's Tasty, Boozy Gift to the World

Bottles of sake line shelves at a design festival in Milan in April. Credit: Shutterstock

Can I Cook With It?

Totally. Just like any other alcohol, sake can make food taste great; and in fact, it’s a staple in a ton of Japanese cuisine. Aside from being great excuses to cook with sake, these dishes are a good gateway to Japanese food beyond sushi. Check out: shogayaki (stir-fried ginger pork with rice), gyudon (rice bowl with beef and sauteed onions), or udon noodles.

I Like Sake. What’s Similar?

Shochu: Also Japanese, it’s another clear spirit, but can also be made from oats, buckwheat or sweet potatoes and has a similar flavour. It tends to contain upward to around 25% alcohol and higher.

Soju: Korean, not Japanese. Distilled instead of brewed. Often made from rice, barley, or wheat, it’s another clear, colourless alcohol, but resembles more of a vodka due to its distillation.

What’s the Biggest Misconception About Sake?

That you should drop it in your beer.

How to Drink Sake: Your Guide to Japan's Tasty, Boozy Gift to the World

We’ll end with this washcloth-wearing seal in a hot spring holding a cup of sake. Credit: AP

Sources: Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, Sake Social

Top image credit: Getty