One can’t afford to miss a bottle of sake, or Japanese rice wine, in life.
This concoction of fermented rice and water does not only have a rich past that catapulted it to become Japan’s national beverage — it’s also enjoyed by people from all over the world to date.
Now available to purchase from restaurants, alcohol shops and even convenience and online stores, sake is coming from so many places that it can be challenging to tell if it’s good quality , bad or even real.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, though. While most may know sake to be fermented rice wine, the term actually refers to all alcoholic drinks in Japan!
In Japan, they call the sake we know nihonshu.
So how do we know if a bottle of sake is good or bad? There’s no one single way to make sure, but there are key details to look at.
If you’ve been drinking sake for a while, you’d know that there are different types prepared in different ways. Therefore, it helps to learn these types so you’ll know what to expect.
A process that all types of sake undergo, however, is polishing. It’s when the rice kernel is milled or “polished” to remove the outer layer of grains (oils and proteins), leaving the starchy core.
Boutique Japan, a travel company that has “done plenty of research,” from consulting with sake connoisseurs to sampling sake throughout Japan, suggests that a good sake is often polished to between about 50% to 70%. This means 30% to 50% of the original rice kernel was polished off
Try to look for this detail when you can, as the extent of polishing certainly affects the drink’s taste, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
In terms of preparation, the usual sake is more akin to beer than wine (being fermented from rice, a grain). However, it is closer to wine than beer when considering taste.
Yet sake is technically different from wine. It is also not a distilled beverage, so it has no relation or whatsoever to gin, tequila, vodka, whiskey and other spirits.
This is where it must be pointed that sake generally contains 15% to 17% of alcohol, according to eSake, a group of Japanese brewers employing traditional brewing methods. Undiluted sake, however, may have up to 20% prior to bottling.
William Kerr, senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group of the Public Health Institute (PHI), said that the average alcohol by volume (ABV) for beer is 4.5%, Live Science noted in 2010. Meanwhile, it’s 11.6% for wine and 37% for liquor or spirits. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have the same estimates in the definition of a standard drink.
It’s unlikely you’ll find a type of sake way out of its alcohol content range, but these are the figures to keep in mind to ensure a good drinking experience!
An interesting discussion surrounding sake is whether it should be served chilled or warmed. While the verdict is ultimately up to the drinker, it’s important to have an insight on how temperature actually affects the taste of the beverage.
Odigo, a travel platform “empowered by a community of passionate locals” in Japan, claims that “fine sake is supposed to be appreciated cold, even in winter months.”
The outlet explained:
“The reason for this is that heating sake affects the flavor and the smoothness of the drink. This is good for taking a lower quality sake and making it more pleasant to drink (that is, something that would burn going down if it was drunk cold goes down a lot smoother if it is warmed up).
“However, if you order a high quality sake and ask for it to be served hot, you will lose some of the characteristics that make it a high quality sake in the first place.”
Yet temperature influencing sake’s taste varies according to type, says Quora user Ivan Dolphin who lived, studied and married in Japan. He shared this chart on the platform:
According to Dolphin, most sake is “intended to be drunk at room temperature,” specifically between 15 degrees Celsius and 33 degrees Celsius (59 degrees and 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit) . He added that some are best enjoyed cold (mizore, down to about -10 degrees Celsius) and quite hot (tobi-kiri-kan, up to about 60 degrees Celsius).
If you’ve been having sake warm for some time,you may want to give the colder and higher grade ones a try!
This pointer applies when you’re drinking sake with another person.
Savvy Tokyo, the city’s “foremost platform for women looking for the latest scoop on what’s new in fashion, food and fun,” notes that in Japanese culture, you’re expected to pour sake on your table-partner’s o-choko (cup).
When the favor is returned, you should hold the brim of the o-choko with one hand and place the other underneath it.
The outlet added:
“When drinking, although you may be tempted to do a ‘sake shot,’ given the size of the cup, you should sip slowly, like you would a fine wine. Nihonshu is also often paired with things such as raw fish and other foods of delicate flavors, so enjoy the set one bite and sip at a time!”
Needless to say, the manner of drinking sake adds up to the whole experience, so it’s worth counting when deciding whether you had a good one.
Last but most importantly, sake becomes good or bad when we come down to its taste. Because it can be Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo, Daiginjo, Shiboritate, Nigori and many others, it helps to try each as a beginner so you’ll know which one’s best.
To compare, take Junmai and Daiginjo:
Junmai is pure rice sake, polished to at least 70% (so 30% is polished off). It usually has a rich, full body with a strong and slightly acidic flavor. It’s best served warm or at room temperature.
Daiginjo, on the other hand, is super premium sake. According to Boutique Japan, it’s considered by many as “the pinnacle of the brewers’ art.” Using precise brewing methods and grains polished down to 50%, it happens to be pricey. But unlike Junmai, it’s best served chilled!
At the end of the day, to each his/her own! The only way to really get a good handle is to go out and try several different types of sake for yourself.
Have you tried sake? Which type do you like most? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.