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What is sake? Learn sake basics, purchase a few varieties, and then educate your palate with a sake tasting event your friends will never forget.
What is Sake?
Sake (or saki) figures prominently in Japanese cultural events, holding an integral role in Shinto religious rituals. What is sake? Sake is a fermented rice beverage, brewed like beer, with alcohol content of 15-17%. Sake brewing requires addition of Koji Mold and optionally distilled alcohol. Brewing takes 1-2 months and the drink is often aged 6+ months before shipment. Despite similarities to beer, select sake like fine wine.
Should You Serve Japanese Sake Cool or Warm?
Serve premium sake chilled not warmed. Some varieties are warmed to good effect, with temperature no higher than 105 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have only tasted warm house sake from local Japanese restaurants, you probably left with a bad aftertaste, lingering headache, and aching stomach. Premium sake has myriad subtle flavors without nasty aftereffects.
Sake Rice Wine Appearance, Nose, and Flavor
Sake is clear or straw colored. Sake is generally lighter, more delicate and less fragrant than white wine. The nose should be fruity, grainy, or herbal without odd aromas like paper or rubber. Sake may be dry, light and crisp or heavy and sweet. There should be no unpleasant aftertaste.
Like French fine wines, sake from a particular locale retains certain characteristics determined by rice variety, water quality, and prevailing brewing techniques. Let personal preferences for taste, acidity, and mouth feel guide you.
Selecting Sake Rice Wine
After aging, breweries ship sake at peak drinkability. Sake degrades in quality after leaving controlled brewery conditions. Selecting the freshest sake available obtains intended flavor. Look for sake less than a year old, an exception being brownish/yellow Konshu aged longer.
Japanese Sake Grade
Eighty percent of sake is “futsu-shu” or table grade, the likely designation of house sake served at Japanese restaurants. Premium sake holds 20% of the market. This special designation sake, or “tokutei meishoushu,” is graded depending on milling and addition of distilled alcohol.
Milling removes tough rice husks and results in more delicate, complex flavor. “Honjozo” has at least 30% of the grain milled away; “Ginjo” is 40% milled, and “Daiginjo” has 50%-65% of the grain removed before brewing. “Junmai” before any of these terms means that distilled alcohol is not added.
The designation “junmai daiginjo,” represents the apex of premium sake. The discriminating buyer should be aware that “Junmai” as a sole designation no longer has any specified milling rate, allowing large commercial brewers to enter the premium sake market without labor-intensive, expensive milling.
Sake Rice Wine Price
Sake prices vary widely depending on grade, rice quality, milling technique, and brewer craftsmanship. US sake distributors carry 180-750 mL bottles priced from $8 to $100 and up. Handcrafted small-scale batches fermented for months command premium prices compared to commercial batches quickly brewed in less than three weeks.
Midrange sake of sturdy quality makes for good everyday drinking. Finely balanced, more delicate varieties can be temperamental under household storage conditions. Reserve for special occasions, consuming quickly for optimal flavor.
Japanese Sake Rice Wine Storage
Sake keeps for six months with refrigeration or storage in a cool room 50-60 F, away from strong light. Sake should be consumed quickly upon opening. Flavor will quickly degrade within a few days. It will still be safe to drink, but won’t taste as good!
Host a Japanese Sake Sipping
The best way to select premium sake is by tasting. Purchase a few varieties, invite friends, and explore. My favorite way to sip on sake is at Epcot in Walt Disney World. Japan serves a variety of sake and you couldn’t ask for a better environment for sipping authentic sake!