A Beginner's Guide to Sake

If you enjoy sushi or ramen, you probably pair your noodles or rolls with sake on occasion. But how much do you really know about the Japanese alcohol, whose worldwide popularity has grown considerably in recent years? If craft beer isn’t to your liking and you don’t fancy yourself a sommelier in the making, there’s a case to be made for getting into Japan’s “drink of the gods.” Before you do, here’s what you need to know.

What It Is — and What It Isn’t

Person pouring sake into two cups that sit on a bamboo tray
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What most westerners call sake is actually known as nihonshū in Japan, as “sake” is simply the Japanese word for alcohol. Produced from more than 70 different kinds of rice — with the yamadanishiki, gyohakumangoku, and miyamanishiki varieties accounting for the lion's share — it’s a beverage over 1,000 years old.

While sake is often described as “rice wine” as a kind of shorthand, the brewing process has more in common with beer. When it comes to taste, the alcohol most know that it’s most comparable to is probably vodka. In other words, it’s actually nothing like wine and not especially similar to anything else, either.

How Rice Becomes Alcohol

Four bottles of sake sitting in a row
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One of the first, most important steps entails polishing the rice in a way that removes each grain's outer layer and exposes the starchy core within. Sake with a rice–polishing ratio (RPR for short, also known as seimaibuai) of 70% will have had 30% of the original kernel polished away, while one with an RPR or 50% will have had half of the original kernel polished. It generally takes one day to achieve a 70% polishing ratio, which is what you'd be likely to find in a cheaper sake, while a 30% polishing ratio can take three days. And while a lower polishing percentage usually correlates to a better-tasting sake, it’s not always the case.

That’s because the type of rice matters as well. There are four main grades, with junmai considered the best — the word literally means “pure rice.” It’s brewed without any additional sugar or alcohol, hence its designation, and is always polished to at least 70%. The end result is a beverage whose alcohol by volume (ABV) is usually between 14–16%, though there are exceptions that prove the rule.

Sip, Don’t Shoot

Two people cheers with sake in clear glasses and food in the background
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Because the small ochoko cups it’s served in are roughly the same size as shot glasses, many assume that you’re meant to drink sake the same way you would a shot of whiskey. That’s a mistake. It’s actually intended to be sipped and savored. (Suffice to say that sake bombs, in which a shot of sake is dropped into a glass of beer and the entire concoction is then chugged, are more of an American phenomenon than a Japanese one — most purists would consider them a waste of good sake.)

Warm or Cold?

Hot sake being poured into cup
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This is largely a matter of taste, but there’s historical context as well. Sake was traditionally served warm until brewing advances were made that resulted in variants that taste better chilled, and today most warm sake is of the inexpensive variety served in restaurants. If you’re on the fence, go with the chilled kind.

Filtered vs. Unfiltered

Barrels of sake stacked in rows
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Unfiltered sake has a more opaque appearance, which is why it’s called nigori (“cloudy”). It’s usually thicker and sweeter than its filtered counterpart, not to mention more popular outside of Japan than it is in Japan itself. Nigori sake also contains actual rice sediment, which is why the bottle tends to be shaken before it’s served.

Different Types

Bottles of sake on a table
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Though there are only two basic designations — futsū-shu is essentially the “ordinary” sake you’ll find at most restaurants, and not unlike table wine in that sense, whereas tokutei meishō-shu is the more premium “special designation” sake saved for special occasions or aficionados — there are many subcategories.

Daiginjo (“big ginjo”) is considered the best of the best, and must have a minimum RPR of 50% to qualify as such; most often served chilled, its quality is reflected in its price tag. (There’s also junmai daiginjo, which is daiginjo made with junmai rice.) Honzojo (whose seimaibuai is at least 60%) is also premium, but differs from daiginjo in that it has a small amount of brewer’s alcohol (a neutral distilled spirit known as jozo arukoru in Japan) added to enhance taste, texture, and aroma.

Then there’s ginjo, which also has an RPR of at least 60% and tends to be fruitier and softer. For that reason, they’re a favorite among many enthusiasts and first-timers alike. On the lower end of the spectrum is the aforementioned futsū-shu, which can have an RPR as low as 93% and is generally dismissed by purists in the same way that boxed wine is by wine snobs.

Even so, the huge variety of sake out there means that there’s no bad place to start. Plus, with companies delivering alcohol and spirits to your door these days, it's never been easier to sample a world of beverages. Check out Drizly for dozens of sake bottles delivered to you.

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