A short guide to understanding a great-but-misunderstood beverage.

By Chris Malloy
November 17, 2020
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Sake is one of the world’s greatest—and most complex—beverages. It can be dry or sweet; fruity and/or filled with umami flavor; and it may be served warm or chilled. We're here to help you understand the basics of sake, including what it tastes like, different types of sake, and how to pick out a bottle. This brief primer will get you on the right track. 

What Is Sake, Exactly?

First, all sake begins with rice. Just how wine is made from grapes, sake is made from rice. But, like beer, sake is brewed. Beyond the primary crop used (rice versus grain), the main difference between sake and beer brewing processes stems from how the brewer changes the crop’s sugars before fermentation (the process that creates alcohol). To make beer, brewers malt grain, boil it, then add yeast to spark fermentation. To make sake, a mold called koji works on rice while yeast converts that rice’s sugars to alcohol.

That’s pretty technical. Koji, also used in miso making, is crucial to sake. It’s important to know about. The other keys to learning to love sake are easier.

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Making Sake and Reading a Sake Bottle

Most high-end sake is made from one of about a hundred kinds of rice specific to sake making. Like grapes, these all have their own characteristics. They grow differently in different places. They even carry terroir, meaning something of the place where they happen to be grown. In making sake, rice is polished, or milled down. Sake’s grade depends on how much of each rice grain has been milled away. Historically, Junmai has been a polishing grade denoting greater purity. “Junmai” on a label is a good sign.

And that’s because there are three main things that make good sake: the rice, the polishing, and the brewing.

Another designation to look for on a label is “nama.” This tells you that a sake remains unpasteurized. The heat of pasteurization can kill nuances; sakes with “nama” on the label are likely to have more subtleties preserved. “Nigori,” too, is good indicator. This means a sake has been unfiltered. Filtering removes flavorful solids with an eye toward producing a clearer liquid. But those solids bring something nice, often a lush milky quality, giving “nigori” another layer of flavor.

On top of these, there are numerous other sake characterizations, many stack. You can have a junmai sake that is also nama, a junmai that is also nigori.

Sake Alcohol Content

Sake can be as high as 20 percent alcohol, but it usually stays lower, more in the neighborhood of 15 percent (slightly higher than red wine).

Tips for Sipping Sake

How to drink sake, you ask? You can use a traditional tiny cup. A wider vessel, like a tumbler, has a wine-glass-like benefit in that you can smell more aromas, meaning you can potentially taste more flavors (because much of taste is smell). Whatever the cup, try to finish your sake bottle within a week or so. Like wine, opened sake has a finite lifetime.

Hot vs. Cold Sake

The best approach is inclusive: All sakes can be enjoyed hot or cold. They can all be sipped very chilled, lightly chilled, room temperature, or warmed.

Warmed sake—generally between 107°F to 113°F—is most traditional, especially for aged sakes with high acidity. Mild, more delicate sake is typically served between 95°F to 104°F. Fruity sake, like ginjo-shu, is often served chilled around 50°F.

The best method is follow your palate and go with the method you enjoy most. This is also the best approach to matching sake with food. Do what you like best. Though sake can go with tempura, soba, or ramen, sakes offer such a wide range of flavors and mouthfeels that they belong beside more than Japanese food. So open a bottle, pour some with dinner, and start tasting for how you like yours.