A Beginner's Guide to Sake


Without sake
what is the use of
cherry blossoms?

-- Anonymous

Sake! The quintessential Japanese drink, to the extent that the Japanese themselves call it nihonshu (日本酒), meaning "Japanese wine". 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 -- festivals, weddings, temples, 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 Everclear.

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 confusion.

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 degradation.)

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:

  1. Warming you up in the winter
  2. 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 get very 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 packaging).

  • 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 dependable.

Further Reading

How Should You Serve Saké? by sensei
What Kinds of Saké Are There? by sensei