Sake 101: Japanese Sake Beginner’s Guide
A trip to Japan would not be complete without a little sake tasting!
As interest in Japanese cuisine has grown internationally, sake has started to become a trendy and recognizable drink around the world.
For starters, this is all you need to enjoy some sake tasting at a specialty sake shop, bar or izakaya.
What is sake?
Ask this question in Japan versus the rest of the world, and you’ll get two different answers.
In English, “sake” refers to the alcoholic fermented rice beverage from Japan, but ask for “sake” in Japan and you may be met with a questioning look. Because in Japanese, “sake” refers to all alcoholic drinks in general. In Japanese, the word for what we refer to as sake is nihonshu. Nihonshu translates as “Japanese alcohol,” and if you ask for nihonshu at an izakaya you will be greeted with a smile.
Types of sake
One of the best things about sake is that there are so many different types and variations. But, unless you are an avid sake drinker, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Here is a handy list of the main types and classifications of sake you will encounter. If you learn just some or all of these, you will know more about sake than 99% of the travelers who visit Japan!
Junmai refers to pure rice (純米) (non-additive) sake. Additionally, the junmai classification means that the rice used has been polished to at least 70% (percentage number on the bottle is 70% or lower) – at least 30% has been polished off. While it’s hard to over-generalize, junmai sake tends to have a rich full body with an intense, slightly acidic flavor. This type of sake can be particularly nice when served warm or at room temperature.
Honjozo (本醸造) also uses rice that has been polished to at least 70% (as with junmai above). However, honjozo by definition contains a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol. This is added to smooth out the flavor and aroma of the sake. Honjozo sakes are often light and easy to drink and can be enjoyed both warm or chilled.
GINJO & JUNMAI GINJO
Ginjo (吟醸) is premium sake that uses rice that has been polished to at least 60% (the percentage number on the bottle is 60% or lower) – at least 40% has been polished off. It is brewed using special yeast and fermenting techniques. The result is often a light, fruity and complex flavor that is usually quite fragrant. It’s easy to drink and often (though certainly not as a rule) served chilled.
Junmai ginjo is simply ginjo sake that also fits the “pure rice” (no additives) definition.
DAIGINJO & JUNMAI DAIGINJO
Daiginjo (大吟醸) is super premium sake ( “dai” or “big”) and is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the brewers’ art. It requires precise brewing methods and uses rice. The rice has been polished all the way down to at least 50% (the percentage number on the bottle is 50% or lower) – at least 50% has been polished off. Daiginjo sakes are often relatively pricey and are usually served chilled to bring out their nice light, complex flavors, and aromas.
Junmai daiginjo is simply daiginjo sake that also fits the “pure rice” (no additives) definition.
Futsushu (普通種) is sometimes referred to as table sake. The rice has barely been polished (somewhere between 93%-70%), and – while we’re definitely not qualified to be sake snobs – is the only stuff we would probably recommend staying away from! Surprisingly, you can get really good-quality sakes for very reasonable prices. Unless you’re looking for a bad hangover (and not-so-special flavor), try staying away from futsushu.
Although sake is not generally aged like wine, it’s usually allowed to mature for around 6 months or more while the flavors mellow out. However, shiboritate (しぼりたて) sake goes directly from the presses into the bottles and out to market. (People tend to love it or hate it.) Shiboritate sake tends to be wild and fruity, some even liken it to white wine.
Most sakes are pasteurized twice: once just after brewing, and once more before shipping. Nama-zake (生酒) is unique in that it is unpasteurized, and as such it has to be refrigerated to be kept fresh. While it of course also depends on other factors, it often has a fresh, fruity flavor with a sweet aroma.
Nigori (濁り) sake is cloudy white and coarsely filtered with very small bits of rice floating around in it. It’s usually sweet and creamy and can range from silky smooth to thick and chunky.
Ji-zake (地酒) means “local sake” and is a great word to keep in mind when traveling to different regions of Japan. Sake is brewed throughout the country, and good jizake usually goes extremely well with each region’s local cuisine. And since it’s local, it’s also usually fresh and often nicely priced.
HOW TO DRINK SAKE
To chill or not to chill
Every sake is different, and sake connoisseurs will tell you to experiment yourself. Some sakes are at their best cold, while others taste perfect when warmed. Our philosophy is: do what tastes best to you. It’s no fun if you’re worried about whether what you’re doing is right or wrong.
That being said, here are some general guidelines to help you in cooling or warming your sake:
- Ask the shop or restaurant staff for their recommendation: they will know whether it is best cold, warm – or either way.
- Avoid extremes: whether chilling or warming, be careful not to overdo it, since overheating and over-chilling can disrupt a sake’s particular flavors and aromas.
- Don’t heat the sake directly, but heat it very gradually.
- At the risk of over-generalizing, many sake experts say that ginjo and daiginjo sakes are usually best not warmed (since being served chilled enhances their flavors and aromas), while many junmai and honjozo sakes do well either way (since warming these types of sakes tends to draw out their complex flavors and smooth them out a bit).
Many sakes taste great at different temperatures – as different temperatures draw out different characteristics – which makes it very worthwhile to experiment for yourself!
What is the right glass
With premium sakes, many connoisseurs recommend drinking sake out of a glass. This is so because it tends to avoid getting in the way of the complex and often subtle flavors and aromas.
But it’s also fun to drink sake out of an ochoko or masu. Enjoying the sake receptacle itself can greatly enhance the experience!
If you do have a more delicate palate and can appreciate sake’s profound characteristics, then it will be worthwhile to invest in good sake-drinking glasses.
The tasting guidelines and generalizations made above are designed to provide a baseline guide. There are many factors that can change the characteristics of any sake (the rice and water used, the skill, etc.). Please expect variations when it comes to each sake’s profile, and keep an open mind!
Ultimately you should trust your own palate and preferences.
Contact us and we will organize for you a perfect Japan itinerary Take Me to Japan for you.