Special thanks to Facebook user Claas Philipp Bischof for some recommendations on tweaks to this article, particularly around which kinds of sake can/should be drank warm.
Recently, someone posted a short missive to a Japanese Sake group on Facebook that I’ve heard countless times:
So I just tried Sake for the first time and it was Gekkeikan brand and was labeled as “World Finest Sake”. I have also recently watched a documentary on Sake and have been an avid fan of Japanese culture for over 20 years now.
Sake has been talked up as being smooth (which I find that it actually is) and very aromatic and flavorful. However, my experience thus far has lacked flavor (tastes more like a smooth and less alcoholic vodka) and has lacked any aroma at all (just smells like alcohol). Why is that?”
I had a similar experience when coming back from Tokyo in July. I was leaving through Haneda and saw, to my shock and delight, that a gift shop had beautifully boxed bottles of Dassai 23, one of Japan’s renowned high-end sakes. It was only $50 for the bottle (and duty free!), which is a deal for Dassai 23, so I snapped it up.
I messaged my friends that I’d be bringing a delicious sake for us to try. But my friend Reagan was skeptical. “I’ve had sake before,” she said, “and I didn’t much care for it.”
“Trust me,” I told her. “This will change your mind.” And it did. After just a single sip, she was sold on the beauty of sake.
What happened? Simple: in both cases, these people were introduced to sake through the worst possible examples of the brand. Handing someone US-bought Gekkeikan as their first sake is like going on to someone for hours about the wonder and beauty of beer, then handing them a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Fortunately, understanding a few basic facts about sake can mean the difference between having a terrible experience and being hooked for life.
What The Heck is Sake, Anyway?
This information is covered better on other sites, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a brief review of what sake is, and exactly how diverse a beverage it can be. Understanding some key elements of sake is important to figuring out which one will best appeal to your palette. (Note: My reference for many of the points below is the book Fundamental Knowledge of Nihonshu.)
First, the English word “sake” is a bit of a misnomer. “Sake” (酒) is the umbrella Japanese word for alcoholic drinks as such. What we call “sake” is referred to in Japan as nihonshu (日本酒), or “Japanese sake”. It is a drink with a long history – the earliest known citation of rice-based alcohol in Japan goes back to 500 AD. As with many traditional japanese arts, the making of a specific brand of sake is something that is often passed down through generations: the oldest sake brewer in Japan, Sudouhon, has been in operation since 1186 (!).
At its most basic, sake is made with water, rice, and rice mold. The quality of the water and the rice are critical in the sake making process. The water used for sake is usually drawn from the brewer’s local water supply, and its qualities – the purity, mineral content, etc. – play a huge role in the taste of the final product. The rice used for sake is not normal table rice, but rather rice grown specifically for sake brewing. The rice should be starchy so that it can be ingested by the yeast. Additionally, since sake rice is ground down to remove some of the starchy outer husk before brewing, brewers need rice with large kernels that won’t break during this milling process. The so-called “king of sake rice” is a strain from Hogo Prefecture called Yamada Nishiki, and is used in many of Japan’s higher-end sakes.
The Different Categories of Sake
Sake is an incredibly diverse drink, and comes in different varieties depending on how it was made. Understanding these differences is critical to picking sake that matches your taste buds and personality.
At the most basic level is “ordinary sake” (普通; futsuu). Ordinary sake has typically had elements added to it, such as amino acids or additional alcohol, equal to 11% or more of the total volume of the bottled product.
If additives are less then 10% of the total bottled product, then things get complicated: the sake enters the realm of “Specially Branded Sake” (特定名称; tokuteimeishou) – special names for different varieties of refined sake. Japanese law regulates the usage of these names. Most products in this category require using a specific level of polished rice; i.e., the rice used for the sake must be milled down to a certain ratio of husk to kernel. This is called the polish ratio (精米歩合; seimai buai). A higher polish ratio results in a fruitier, more aromatic sake with more complexity.
There are eight total special sake names, divided into three general categories:
- Ginjoshukei (吟醸酒系). Has added alcohol, and a high level of polished rice. Ginjoshu (吟醸酒) has a polish ratio of 60% or less (i.e., less than 60% of the husk remains on the rice), and Daiginjoshu (大吟醸酒) has a ration 50% or less.
- Junmaishukei (純米酒系). Has no added alcohol – i.e., this is “pure” sake. A regular Junmai doesn’t need a specific polishing level. There are also Junmai Ginjo (純米吟醸) and Junmai Daiginzo (純米大吟醸), which are basically “pure” variants of Ginjo and Daiginjo. Another variety of Junmai is the “special Junmai” (特別純米); this sake doesn’t need a particular polish ratio, but must use a “special” brewing process.
- Honjozoushukei 本醸造酒系). Sake with some sort of additive – either added alcohol, or sometimes just plain water. Regular Honjo needs to use rice with a 70% or less polish ratio, while special Honjo (特別本嬢) can waive the polish requirement.
There is even more variation than this. Some breweries have their own particular methods they used throughout the brewing process. Additionally, different fermentation methods – whether one uses a starter mash or not – create different taste profiles. But for the beginner, the above is more than enough complexity.
How to Ignore the PBRs of the Sake World
So, you get it now. Sake is deep, man. So how’s a poor beginner to get started? Here are a few rules of thumb to follow.
For starters, stick with Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo. Pure-rice sake with no additives and a high polish ratio on the rice tends to be a very smooth, easily drinkable product with a lot of taste complexity and an incredibly fragrant scent. Once you get your feet wet with these types, you can extend your palette to other types of sake. (Or you can just keep drinking Junmai – there’s nothing wrong with that!)
Drink your Ginjo cold. Kan (燗), or heated sake, is a venerable tradition. However, it’s best done with certain types of sake – Honjo, regular sake, or a good Junmai. (If you live near a store with a resident sake expert, they can recommend specific brands that work best when heated.) Ginjo should be chilled in the fridge and imbibed cold. It should stay in the fridge for no more than a few days; after about the third day, sake, like a good wine, will begin to lose its fresh, original taste.
Expect to pay a little. It’s possible – but hard – to get a really good Junmai for under USD $20 in the states. Importing of sake doubles the costs of most bottles, meaning a product that would only run you USD $15 in Japan (￥1500) will cost about $30. A bottle of good quality will run $20-40 in the US, and some higher end sakes sell for anywhere from $50 to $100 a bottle – or more!
Buy imported sake at an Asian grocery store or online. Most of what you can get in a regular grocery store is US-produced. That’s not always a bad thing: some manufacturers, such as Portland’s Momokawa, put out a decent product. But I think it’s best to first experience traditionally produced sake from a manufacturer with a solid reputation in Japan.
You can usually ask someone on staff at an Asian grocery what they’d recommend. I can personally suggest any of the following brands:
- Hakutsuru. One of the more available brands in the US, and with at least one bottle of Junmai Ginjo that you can get for under $20.
- Kubota. Very plentiful abroad, and with a wide range that goes from the affordable to the truly ostentatious.
- Dewazakura. One of my favorite “for every occasion” sakes. Their Ouka and Dewasansan brands will run you a little bit of money ($30-40 a pop), but are worth the additional expense.
- Kaiun. Great quality at around a $30 price point for their Junmai Ginjo.
- Dassai. Dassai is famous in Japan as being one of the brands that kickstarted the “craft sake” movement, and helped save the industry from going out of business as young people turned toward beer. It sells three varieties: the 50, 39 and 23, all named for the polish ratio. The entire line is made with Yamada Nishiki rice, a.k.a. the “king of sake rice”. The 50 is the least expensive – which means, it’ll run you about USD $50 for a 750ml bottle. A bottle of 23 in the US will run you a good $100. If you can afford it, however, I highly recommend drinking at least Dassai 50 as your first sake; it will serve as a standard against which you judge everything else you taste.
You can read more about Dassai’s fascinating journey at Nippon.com:
“It Tasted Like Semen”
One more note about sake varieties. I had another friend who, when I started going on about sake, pursed her lips into a churlish grimace and said, “I can’t stand sake. I had it one, and it looked and tasted like semen.”
It took me a while to figure out that she was referring to a specific type of sake called nigori-zake (にごり酒). Nigori is produced in such a way that some of the sake curds from the distilling process are left behind in the drink. This results in a cloudy texture, and a thicker sake with more body. It’s a favorite of mine, and one I drink whenever I’m in the mood. However, some people may not care for it due to the thicker texture and sweeter taste. Just be aware that this is yet another option on the market: even if you don’t like nigori, you are still likely to appreciate a nice, clean and crisp Junmai Daiginjo.
Can I Take It Home From Japan?
By far, the most economical way to get your hands on bottles of sake is to buy it while you’re in Japan, and take it home with you. If you’re in Japan anyhow, you’ll be able to obtain your favorite bottles for at least half of the cost.
While carrying glass bottles in your luggage is not necessarily encouraged by the airlines, I’ve done it multiple times with no issue. However, some afficianados will tell you that exposure to heat and the jostling a bottle may receive in cargo will diminish the taste; they recommend always transporting it by hand, and even asking the cabin attendants to refrigerate for you. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to experiment, and judge for themselves.
Additionally, if you bought sake at the airport’s duty free shop, and you need to clear security again in American in order to transfer flights, do not, by ANY means, attempt to take a bottle through US security. Most bottles of sake aren’t secured according to the US’s strict standards for liquids, and you’ll be forced to throw it out. (Not that I, errr, learned that the hard way or anything…)
Before I began learning about sake, I had no idea that it was such a broad label encompassing such a large range of experimentation. While this diversity can be intimidating at first, it also means that there’s a sake to suit just about any taste. After starting out with some Junmai Ginjo, try and experiment with different sakes and see what one agrees best with your palette.