A Beginner's Guide to Sake
what is the use of
Sake! The quintessential Japanese drink
, to the extent that
the Japanese themselves call it nihonshu
". Like it or not (and the first time they try it
most people don't) should you end up staying in Japan for a longer time
you'll run into sake everywhere
s, down at the izakaya
-- so this is my little attempt
at an introduction to this fine drink.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that sake is an acquired taste.
This is true for most Japanese food; it simply tastes so different
from what most non-Japanese are used to, especially given the way
it's usually served (more on that later). But like wine, it's a
taste that will grow on you.
How to Choose Sake
Unfortunately, acquiring the taste for sake is complicated by the
fact that much of the sake available in Japan, and nearly all sold
outside Japan, ranges from poor to outright horrible. For example,
here in Finland the only brand of sake available is Gekkeikan
(月桂冠), which is so vile that it is considered barely fit for
for use as cooking sake in Japan. The other brand I've often
seen in Europe and the US is American-brewed Ozeki (大関),
the Budweiser of the sake world, which in Japan is sold in single-portion
"Ozeki One Cup" portions, the primary target audience being
alcoholics who can't afford to pay 1000 yen for a bottle of
However, the above are still, technically, sake. Remember that
just because it says rice wine on the menu doesn't mean it's sake: there are
many distilled Asian rice products ranging from shochu to mao tai
out there, which are popular solely because they're a cheap way to get
drunk. Sake is purely a Japanese drink, so you will not
find it outside Japanese restaurants.
The myths of the potency of sake result mostly from this
But let us assume you've found a purveyor of real sake somehow.
What should you pick? All things being equal (and for a beginner
they are, yes?), I would recommend that you go for a dry
(Jp. karakuchi) sake, with a nihonshudo around +6 to +10 if you
can manage it. These tend to be very light, with the most
resemblance to (extremely) dry white wine and with the least of
the alcoholic smell and lingering aftertaste that make the Gekkeikans
and Ozekis of the sake world so unpleasant.
Or you could swing for the other end of the spectrum and go for a
cloudy white nigorizake, which are sweet, thick and almost
liquor-like. Many Japanese sake snobs disdain these, because the
masses of rice floating in it mask all the exquisite nuances that
they get their kicks from, but I fell in love with nigorizake the
first time I tried it, before I learned to like the "normal" kind.
However, their availability is somewhat poor even in Japan, it's
a bit of a seasonal product best available in the spring (although
any decent supermarket will have a few bottles in the fridge).
As for price considerations and all the labels like "junmai" and
"daiginjo" that sake fans love to fling about, I wouldn't worry
too much about them; they affect perception and taxation a lot more
than they affect taste. You can find perfectly good -- nay, excellent --
sake in the ¥1000-2000 price range for a 720 ml bottle,
paying any more than that is a bit of a waste until you start to get
the hang of things. One tip: if you find jizake (local sake)
on the menu somewhere, I suggest you try it -- odds are it will be
much better than the safe but dull bulk sake on offer.
Finally, remember that sake does not keep, so please pay heed to the
expiration date printed on the bottle. Sake is bottled when it is
at its best, and it will stay there for a few months, perhaps a year
at most. Once opened, a bottle of sake keeps for no longer than
a bottle of wine, ie. a few days in the fridge at best. (This applies
to drinking sake only; the cheaper brands, like Gekkeikan, are usually so
loaded with preservatives that you can keep an open bottle in the fridge
as cooking sake for half a year without noticing any significant
How to Drink Sake
Now, the traditional way to drink sake (or so you've probably been
told) is to heat it up. This way of drinking is
called atsukan and, in Japan, it is reserved for two things:
- Warming you up in the winter
- Making bad sake tolerable
If you order atsukan
in the summer, you will get funny looks.
If you order good sake as atsukan
any time of the year, you will
funny looks. All sake tastes the same when it is
heated, and that taste is not particularly good; one particularly
unpleasant aspect of heated sake
(especially if too hot) is the noxious
smell of ethyl alcohol
rising from it,
rice having little smell of its own to mask it. Yuck.
Instead, do as the Japanese do and drink your sake hiyashi,
chilled. This is especially good for drier (karakuchi)
kinds of sake. Those little porcelain thimble cups (o-choko)
are made for slamming down like tequila shots, which is why you rarely
see them in restaurants; a perfectly ordinary glass is a much better
tool for slowly savouring your sake. Masu, those lovely wooden
boxes, look and smell nice, but they tend to do strange things to
their contents until they're worn in -- and it's difficult to drink
from a cube anyway.
For more details on the rarefied art of serving sake,
consult sensei's excellent writeup How Should You Serve Saké?.
Also, please don't drink sake together with full meal, especially anything spicy -- the Japanese way is to nibble on tsumami, little snacks. Sashimi
is, of course, a classic, but sushi and sake, being both made from
rice, do not mix.
A Few Favorites
I'm afraid these are a bit on the esoteric side, and your
mileage may vary anyway. But just the same:
- Himuro (氷室), a slightly sweet namazake from Hida-Takayama. See
the node for the full scoop.
- Kubota Suiju (久保田翠壽), the only namazake made by Kubota, one of the most
famous sake producers in Japan. While I find most of Kubota's
output mediocre and overpriced, Suiju remains the best sake
I've ever had. Unfortunately, it costs a cool ¥4,500 a bottle...
- Oku-no-Matsu (奥の松). I'm mentioning this primarily because
it's sold at Narita Airport in a really spiffy-looking ceramic
bottle with brushed calligraphy (900 ml) and also in a miniature barrel
of the same style as used in temples (1800 ml).
The perfect souvenir, and the sake inside isn't half bad
either (although you do have to pay a bit of a premium for the
- Otokoyama (男山), a famous dry sake from Hokkaido.
Unlike the above, this stuff is popular and affordable, and you can
often find it on restaurant menus. Not outstanding, but pretty
How Should You Serve Saké? by sensei
What Kinds of Saké Are There? by sensei