Sake Lessons From the Experts

Even if you are a novice sushi bar patron, you’ve certainly heard of saké, the national drink of Japan. It’s one of the oldest alcoholic drink styles in human history, dating back further than 4800 BC. While it was first created in China, it was first mass produced in Japan.

During the past decade, however, saké has seen a huge boom in popularity alongside the craft beer revolution.

Yes, that’s right — the BEER revolution. One of the most common misconceptions about saké is that it’s rice wine. Saké is actually fermented like a beer, complete with different yeast strains.

So now that we have gotten past that, let’s take a deeper look at this misunderstood drink style.

Saké means something different in Japan

We all have a basic idea of what saké is (well, now that we know it isn’t wine). Whether you drink it hot, warm, or cold, saké is pretty much self-explanatory everywhere in the world.

Well, not when you’re in Japan. Saké actually refers to all alcoholic drinks. This may be where the misunderstanding of style came from. Imagine going into a bar and asking for alcohol. You’re bartender is going to look a little confused, right? In Japan, what we consider saké is pronounced “nihonshu.”

Saké has multiple complexities — and multiple price points

Like malted barley, wheat, oats, and a host of other carbohydrate-rich grains used to ferment beer, saké also uses a grain to feed yeast in order to produce alcohol — rice.

But unlike these other grains, using rice is a much more difficult process. Each grain of rice is “polished,” meaning that its outer husk is slowly removed. The more that is removed, the cleaner the starch, and thus, cleaner the drink. And no, a saké brewer does not polish each individual grain of rice. They use large metal strainers and machines to complete the process.

This is akin to a rye whisky or beer. The texture is more coarse and the taste is more rough and sweet. There are other factors that affect taste — namely yeast styles, pasteurization, and filtering, to name a few. But for the most part, the amount of polishing is the most-marketed characteristic.

Here are the three main saké styles you’ll encounter. Yes, there are others, but these are the three that will help get you started:

Junmai — This is the least-polished of saké styles, with approximately 30 percent of the outer husks removed. This produces the most rice-like flavor and is considered the first tier of the saké world.

Ginjo — At between 60 and 50 percent polished, ginjo is usually described with fruity and floral notes. It is a refreshing style, but still offers a little complexity for those who want to up their saké understanding.

Daiginjo — Considered the top tier of the saké world, daiginjo is made in small batches and tends to be much more expensive that the others. At least 50 percent polished, the dominating rice aromas and harsher textures are removed, allowing for more nuanced profiles and a much more delicate body.

Hot, cold, or warm?

Just like wine and beer, saké is served at different temperatures depending on a number of factors, most notably the weather outside. We suggest speaking with your server or shop owner to find out the best practices based on what you are buying.

Let’s get this out of the way first though. Hot saké is relegated to the cheaper, less polished styles. It is called “joukan” and is best served with oily and fatty meals. The heat from the saké asts as a palate cleanser, while opening up taste buds.

The most popular form of saké is served warm. Called “nurukan,” it is paired with sushi and other colder fish dishes. It’s flavor is usually not too complex and overwhelming, but provides a little warmth for cold restaurants and cold weather.

Cold saké, which is rapidly growing in popularity in the United States, is called “reishu.” You will see this type in bottle shops and wine stores alike. It tends to have more complex flavors and pairs well with sweet meals while contrasting well with sour flavors.

Some Saké customs

Like most everything Japanese, there are hundreds of years of tradition that define them. Saké is no different. What is very interesting — and a little sad — is that saké has lost much of its popularity in Japan now that beer and liquor have become so pervasive. More than two-thirds of the saké breweries have closed in Japan since the early 1900s, with only about 1,000 currently still in business.

But worldwide, saké production has boomed. And with this increase in production, the preservation of the traditions have thankfully carried through to new generations.

Here are a couple traditions to keep in mind:

Spill your saké! — Just like slurping your noodles and eating “loudly,” spilling a little saké when you are pouring it for somebody is a sign of respect — to the host. Most saké cups are accompanied by a small plate to sit on (kinda like a tea cup). This is important when pouring because a little overpour gives homage to the host’s generosity. Sure, this hasn’t taken hold in many countries, but it will certainly show your guests and hosts a little old-school respect.

Don’t pour your own. — This is a big one folks. It is considered impolite to pour your own saké. There are a number of thoughts on this, but at the heart of everything is that saké is considered a conduit for friendship. It is used as an act of bonding between friends and a humbling gesture that is common throughout Japanese society.

Ask questions. — Part of the fun that accompanies trying new things is the research — and alcohol-based researched is the best! But make sure you communicate your intentions to your server. Let them know your level of experience. Tell them what you are planning on eating. Engage them and they’ll return the favor tenfold!