Japanese Sake Guide for Beginners
Often compared with the storied wine culture of Europe, Japan's contribution to worldwide cuisine has deservedly found greater recognition across Europe in recent years. Nihon-shu, known in the West as sake or rice wine, can offer a rewarding yet wholly unique experience to wine enthusiasts seeking to expand their palates -- no matter your level of experience.
If you're new to Japan's quintessential libation, keep reading our Japanese Sake Guide for Beginners and learn how you can become a confident connoisseur.
Similar to both beer and wine in several ways, sake is an alcoholic beverage that draws its distinct flavors and aromas from its prime ingredient -- Japanese short-grain rice.
The simplicity of ingredients shows through in Japanese sake's clean taste profile and sweet aromatics. But what most beginners don't realize is that the Japanese rice used for making sake differs in many ways to the rice served on Japanese tables. And it's these differences that accomplished brewers leverage to create a satisfying bottle of sake.
The other three ingredients -- water, koji mold, and yeast -- also play vital roles in the brewing process with water making up 80% of sake's volume and a mold known as koji working together with yeast to complete the fermentation through a process called multiple parallel fermentation. This process is performed slowly over a low temperature, which delicately coaxes the satisfying flavors and aromas from these simple ingredients while also keeping many beneficial nutrients.
Sake that falls within the Junmai family contains only the essential ingredients necessary for brewing -- rice, water, koji mold, and yeast.
The Ginjo sake family carries many of the same traits as the Junmai sake family, with one noticeable difference -- Ginjo sake is fortified with distilled alcohol, which is added not to increase the alcohol content but to release the complex flavors and aromas that lay dormant in Junmai sake.
Like wine, the terminology that you use can better identify the quality and characteristics of sake. Learn more about these helpful phrases by visiting our Sake Dictionary .
While sake is often called "rice wine," it doesn't undergo the same fermentation process as wine. Nevertheless, many wine lovers who visit Japan and try sake for the first time are quite surprised by how compatible it is with their palate. Understanding the similarities between the distinct types of sake in comparison with your favorite white and red wines will make finding your perfect sake that much easier and more rewarding of an experience.
The major difference between sake and wine is that wine often has a robust presence, whereas sake tends to be more subtle and smooth. However, if your palate prefers a bold red wine, there are also several types of sake that can match your taste. When shopping for Japanese sake, a knowledgeable sommelier will categorize sake into one of four main taste profiles: aromatic, aged, refreshing, and rich.
- Aromatic SAKE
Aromatic sake tends to be sweet and fruity and will likely satisfy fans of white and light red wines. You'll find Daiginjo and Ginjo sake in this group.
- Aged SAKE
Aged sake features distinctive aromas matched with a sweet, full-bodied, creamy texture. Junmai Ginjo is part of this emerging group of Nihon-shu, which seeks to win over fans of medium-bodied red wine.
- Refreshing SAKE
Refreshing sake features a very light body, and white wine lovers will particularly enjoy Honjozo sake.
- Rich SAKE
Rich sake offers a savory quality that mirrors full-bodied red wines.
There are many ways to enjoy sake. In fact, the taste and aroma of sake can change drastically depending on the temperature.
Typically, hot sake is best before or after a meal as the heat tends to lessen the richness of flavors.
Not only does the temperature affect the taste of sake, but so does the cup you're drinking from.
The shape of the cup -- along with the materials from which it's made -- will bring out different profiles. Some shapes and materials emphasize flavors, while others let you enjoy subtle aromas.
Much like with wine, sake can complement, enhance, and at times become the centerpiece of the meal. There are typically four methods for matching sake with food.
Matching sake with foods that have similar profiles is the easiest and most common pairing method.
This adventurous pairing method brings together food and sake with different flavor and aroma profiles to create a new taste that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Using this pairing method, sake's role is to support and enhance the flavor of the dish, and thus should not be too strong so that it doesn't overpower the meal. In this scenario, the sake also acts as palate cleanser for each flavorful bite.
Pairing sake with foods that feature a saltier umami taste helps bring out the sake's taste to its fullest, truly making it the star of the meal.
- Aromatic SAKE
Pairs well with seafood and vegetables and is best enjoyed prior to the main course.
- Aged SAKE
Complements fermented foods like cheese and strong flavors like chocolate and grilled meats.
- Refreshing SAKE
Pairs beautifully with sashimi, shellfish, and salad.
- Rich SAKE
Perfectly matches complex-flavored regional cuisine from France, Germany, and Italy.
Many are surprised to find how well sake works as a base for cocktails. Try our Sake Cocktail Recipes to broaden your options.
Sake is an integral ingredient in traditional Japanese cooking, and while it is possible to use drinking sake, most Japanese homes use a lower-quality sake made especially for this purpose. Like wine, we recommend that you reserve good-quality sake for the table, unless you happen to find it unpalatable.
While specialty aged sake is available, sake generally does not age well. It's best to store unopened sake in a cool, dry, and dark place as sake is greatly affected by sunlight.
After opening a bottle of sake, it should be stored in a chilled area and finished as soon as possible. Unopened bottles of Ginjo sake should also be stored in a chilled area.