How to drink sake
December 20th, 2011
09:05 AM ET
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How do you make a 1,200-year-old drink, hip?  One way is by calling it the “new wine” and making it an essential ingredient in killer cocktails. That’s what’s happened to sake, the rice-based liquor that is associated with all that is traditional about Japan. Yet from its origins in Shinto ceremonies in the 8th century and its place modern-day weddings, it is currently undergoing a revival.

It may be a laggard compared to sushi in its global appeal but it is increasingly popular among connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine, says Kelvin Zeia, the sake sommelier of Japanese restaurant Zuma in Hong Kong.

“The palate goes from sweet to dry, but there are subtleties between different types of sake,” he says. The alcohol content of around 15% also means it can be a discreet mixer in cocktails.

For many their first experience of sake might not have been a particularly sophisticated experience, most likely downed as a cup of hot grog after a few too many beers at the sushi bar. Yet there is much more about the drink to appreciate.

While it can’t compete with wine for breadth and variety, nor vintages (sake is best drunk “fresh” – within a year or so be being brewed) sake does have a number of grades and types. The complexity of the flavor is dependent on a number of factors; from how much the rice has been polished (to remove the proteins and oils), to the type of water used.

Regional difference then can be detected, says Zeia, as sakes with a cleaner taste will often be made in regions close to mountains with supplies of spring water, rather than lower-lying areas that used more mineral-intense groundwater.

But for novices to begin enjoying sake the essentials come from knowing the three main varieties. For those looking for the Chateau Lafite of the sake world (and looking to splash the cash) there’s Daiginjo, generally believed to be the finest using the highest percentage of polished rice. Like the majority of sake it should be drunk chilled, says Zeia, as heating generally masks the delicate flavors. Generally anything colder than 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) is too cold; hotter than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), too hot.

Junmai sakes can have a variety of flavors and are seen as the middle ranked of the three varieties of sake. Made with only rice and koji, the rice mold mixture essential for fermentation, no other alcohol is added. The last main type is Honjozo, that doesn’t use rice polished to the same degree as Ginjo and Junmai sakes. It also has added distillation alcohol and is the type more likely to be served warmed as it has a lighter taste compared to the others.

But better than just drinking sake in its own is pairing it with with food; a sake can be found that complements pretty much anything except for really spicy dishes, says Zeia.  

“With white fish, seafood or sushi, go for a Junmai,” he suggests. “With grilled meats, go for a long measure, Junmai Daiginjo sake, like the brand Born, aged in the bottle for about 18 months.”

With these basics in mind, the world of sake can be explored. But ultimately, says Zeia, finding the right sake to suit your own taste is half of the pleasure.

See all our Japan Eats coverage and get more on CNNGo

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Filed under: Asian • Cuisines • Feature • Japan • Japan Eats • Japanese • Sake • Sip


soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. steve

    Sake is great using Bizen guinomi and tokkuri from the Nakamura family and some shiokara or oden.

    November 5, 2013 at 10:31 am | Reply
  2. slupdawg

    For better or worse, I'm gonna try my hand at making some sake. I have a source for the rice and koji, and have brewed all kinds of stuff. Hopefully, it turns out drinkable, but at a $50 investment to yield 30 bottles, I'd be willing to try and fail.

    December 22, 2011 at 1:44 am | Reply
  3. Amanda

    Warm Sake after Shabu Shabu on Christmas Eve night in snowy Kyoto is a very happy memory. We also ordered a small plate of fried chicken tenders. Anyone familiar with Japanese christmas impressions will understand the joke!

    December 21, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Reply
  4. Chartreuxe

    In Japan about sake, they say, 'You drink the first bottle. The second bottle drinks you.'

    December 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  5. Evil Grin

    One of my favorite drinks. Unfortunately, my very first experience with Sake came directly from Japan after a friend visited and brought me a souvenir. We drank it first mulled, then chilled. Both ways were excellent, and should not be discounted. I don't see why you shouldn't drink it the way you like.

    Sadly, I've never since found the like. It was excellent, smooth and incredibly tasty.

    I don't know the name of the brand (it was in Japanese), though I do remember the look of the bottle and label. As of yet, I've never found it state-side. I've had many other sakes since, but none that quite compared to that one.

    December 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  6. Toots McGee

    One of my favs is Pure (Dawn):

    http://www.puresake.com/

    December 21, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  7. Observer

    All of you are alcoholics. Without exception.

    December 21, 2011 at 11:32 am | Reply
    • Brian

      You say that like it is a bad thing.

      December 21, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Reply
      • Noxious.Sunshine

        lmao that's what she said...

        You gon' learn today!

        December 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
    • Chartreuxe

      You would seem to be a troll.

      December 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Reply
      • hawkechik

        No seeming about it my friend.

        December 21, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
    • Tony Baloney

      I HOPE you mean me too!

      December 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Reply
    • Miss Robyn

      They are educated. You manichino.

      December 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  8. Lokust

    I have no idea if it is "quality" sake, but I love Momokawa Pearl.

    December 21, 2011 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • Witmonger

      The Momokawa line of polished rock-themed sakes are considered premium Junmai's of some kind, for sure. They are the best I have been able to find at a decent price with any ease in the US. The Pearl is quite different from most sake, however, as it's considered a NIgori, which means it's cloudy from the unfiltered rice grain left behind and the sweetest true sake you can get. Always shake a Nigori before serving to mix up the rice remnants.

      December 24, 2011 at 3:42 am | Reply
  9. Noxious.Sunshine

    Some of the better sushi places in my area (Nashville – Sushi O Sushi by Lennox Village on Nolensville Rd. is amazing) make sake in-house that tastes great whether it's hot or cold. I love "making" sushi rolls and serving it with sake.. Sadly, Gekkeikan is pretty much all that's available at my favorite liquor store. I like to try different kinds.

    For those who are more interested in getting the proper serving sets, http://www.j-list.com has awesome deals on the sake "carafe" and serving cup sets that look really great.

    December 20, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
    • Momokawa

      You should be able to find Momokawa and G brands of sake in Nashville. Their a small step up in price for a huge step in quality.

      December 21, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
      • Noxious.Sunshine

        To be honest, I really haven't looked lol. I'm sure my liquor store has other brands of sake. They also sell various plum wines and Soju (Korean alcohol) and whatnot... One of these days I'm gonna make another batch of Bulgogi (Korean BBQ) & get a bottle of Soju.. lol..

        December 21, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  10. Name*rich

    Sake

    December 20, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  11. Mother's Milk

    Cold unfiltered sake, creamy white and wonderful. It is the ultimate in comfort drink.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Reply
    • Kurt

      I agree! Tozai Nigori is my favorite.

      December 21, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  12. MedicMax

    Soju is where it's really at.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
    • Super Dave

      I'm with you on that. Try Chamishil Soju with Sam gyup
      sal (Korean bacon) and all the side dishes. Pure heaven

      December 21, 2011 at 4:06 am | Reply
  13. J.I.M.

    I have tried a few sakes but my favorite is still the standard Gekkeikan(sp?). I like to drink it warm with a little lime and a touch of salt, the Rice-a-Rita. Try it. Dry, fresh.

    December 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  14. tewrobert

    I would like to share an experience with you all, about drinking and

    driving. As you well know, some of us have been known to have had brushes
    with the authorities on our way home from the odd social session over the
    years.

    A couple of nights ago, I was out for a few drinks with some friends
    and had a few too many cocktails and some rather nice claret. Knowing full well
    I may have been slightly over the limit, I did something I've never done
    before – I took a bus home.

    I arrived home safely and without incident, which was a real surprise,

    as I have never driven a bus before and am not sure where I got this one.

    December 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Reply
    • itsjustme

      HAHA!

      December 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Reply
    • Goober Grape

      ROFLMAO! That one's going in my book!

      December 21, 2011 at 7:12 am | Reply
    • Bob

      That's great! Very smart. Congrats!

      December 21, 2011 at 8:53 am | Reply
    • hawkechik

      And you've been waiting all week for an alcohol related article just so you could trot out that chestnut, eh? Never mind. Thanks for the chuckle!

      December 21, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  15. Northeasternnu

    Actually the best way to drink it is by pouring some in a shot glass and carfully suspending the glass on two chopsticks above a glass of beer. Wait for your friends then count down and slam your fists on the table, the sake false into the beer and you chug it...Sake bomb

    December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  16. Ricky Bobby-san

    Chris brown is no confucious. Hee-yaw!

    December 20, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  17. John Madden

    Snake? Snake! SAAAAAAAAAAAAKE

    December 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  18. Aletheya

    Living in Minnesota as I do, I like warmed up sake after being outside on a cold day.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  19. it's not alot

    if you can find it at a local liquor store, Tozai is great.
    served chilled, the taste is remarkable and the buzz is very unique, not at all like beer or wine and very pleasant.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  20. Lee S

    When it was served to me in China it was warm. I like it better that way.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  21. WR2

    I get the spring water and ground water comparisons but what about the water from near Fukashima? Does Sake produced from those waters create a warm, fuzzy glow?
    WR2

    December 20, 2011 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • SakeSan

      It leaves me with a burning feeling,yet I have noticed I see better in the dark.

      December 20, 2011 at 11:06 am | Reply
      • WR2

        I got it! The Green Lantern cocktail. 1 part Fukushima Sake and 2 parts Absinthe. Furry Conventions would become a religious experience.
        WR2

        December 20, 2011 at 11:47 am | Reply
  22. palintwit

    The Palins have their own recipe for sake. They all throw their dirty underwear in the hot tub, let it soak, then drain it off and add a little rubbing alchohol. Voila !! Just like being in Tokyo. Bristoltwit thinks she's a geisha girl.

    December 20, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
    • CN Red

      That heifer, a geisha girl.? LOL!

      December 20, 2011 at 10:17 am | Reply
  23. Roger Ritter

    Sake is served in tokkuri (small sake bottles) and poured into o-choko (small sake cups). It is polite to pour sake into each other's cup when you are drinking with someone. It's good to know whether your company's cup is empty or not. When someone wants to pour you more sake, you should hold your o-choko cup up. While I pulled this off the internet, I was previously advised this years ago by a close Japanese friend.

    December 20, 2011 at 9:46 am | Reply
  24. Sybaris

    There is good sake and there is bad sake, and it can be very bad. You get what you pay for.

    Also, serving it cold must be the rage among western hipsters because it certainly isn't the norm for nihonjin.

    December 20, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
    • lordpet

      Low grade sake is served hot because heating it doesn't spoil what flavors there are. High grade sake should be served chilled so as to retain the flavors. Basically all hot sake tastes the same.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
    • Valentijn

      Serving it cold is the standard for quality sake. I've had the good stuff both ways and it is far far better cold. If you're going to warm it up, don't bother buying the good stuff.

      December 20, 2011 at 10:49 am | Reply
    • Joey

      In 20+ trips to Japan, I only had sake chilled.
      This was both with sushi and other cooked foods.

      I did have Shochu (distilled spirit) heated a couple of times.

      December 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Reply
      • qwedie

        Cold Sake is love in it's self.

        December 20, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Reply
      • Amanda

        Warm Sake after Shabu Shabu on Christmas Eve night in snowy Kyoto is a very happy memory. Chilled sake just would not have had the same effect that night! (We also ordered a small plate of fried chicken tenders. Anyone familiar with Japanese christmas impressions will understand the joke!)

        December 21, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Reply
    • advocatusdiaboli

      This whole article is BS. Chilling dull the taste buds not enhances their ease perception Need proof? Try drinking a Coke or Pepsi warm and you'll see what I mean—you have to drink that junk cold to stomach it. while I agree over heating probably make flavors, chilling does too. Room temp or just slightly below let's you taste buds taste it to the fullest.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Reply
      • AGeek

        There's a difference between chilling and cold. 45-50degF is chilled. Less than 45degF is cold.

        December 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Reply
      • UFC iTard

        Your comment is pure gibberish. And your example of drinking warm Coke or Pepsi is nonsense. Those drinks were designed to be consumed at lower temperatures as are almost all carbonated beverages. Why don't you try drinking chicken soup straight from the can and see if that is palatable to you. Or maybe try some warm wine. Maybe try eating a nice cold steak see how much better it tastes than a hot one.

        December 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • AGeek

      Odd you say it's not "the norm" for nihon-jin. I have numerous friends from around Tokyo, to Omiya and from Kyoto to Takamatsu. I've visited and speak with them frequently. *Nobody* makes a habit of drinking warmed sake. If the sake is of any quality, it's always served chilled (but not cold).

      December 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  25. Sybaris

    There is good sake and there is bad sake, and it can be very bad. You get what you pay for.

    As for drinking it chilled, I lived in Japan for many years, drank it in bars, at home, at relatives homes and never had it served chilled . Serving it chilled must be the trend among the twenty-somethings.

    December 20, 2011 at 9:36 am | Reply
  26. Sybaris

    There is good sake and there is bad sake, and it can be very bad. You get what you pay for.

    As for drinking it chilled, I lived in Japan for many years, drank it in bars, at home, at relatives homes and never had it served chilled . Serving it chilled must be the rage among the hipsters.

    December 20, 2011 at 9:34 am | Reply
  27. The Witty One™

    mmmm......sake bombs!

    December 20, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
  28. Kirk

    The sake that I have had in restaurants and bars have always been heated. I assumed that was how it was supposed to be served. Thanks for clearing that up CNN.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:51 am | Reply
  29. gix

    I'm always curious how it taste maybe I need to try it next time when I go to a Japanese rest.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:36 am | Reply
    • Not A Fan

      Yes, do try it. I was disappointed. It tasted like warm, soapy water someone used to clean athletic socks.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:27 am | Reply
      • Sumo Wrestler

        Those weren't socks you were tasting.

        December 20, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
      • Not a Fan

        ;) Do tell, what was it I was tasting? Was it the sushi chef's happy ending?

        December 20, 2011 at 9:38 am | Reply
      • Valentijn

        Sounds like you got cheap sake, warmed up. Ask for a cold junmai daiginjo, or at least junmai ginjo. The first one I tried was Momokawa Diamond from Oregon, and it was utterly amazing despite that it was only junmai grade and reasonably priced.

        December 20, 2011 at 10:45 am | Reply
    • Dashiel

      Bear in mind at a restaurant sake, just like wine, is marked up 200-500% and the good stuff is often only sold by the bottle. One of my favorites cost $45 at a local sushi bar, I was able to get it for $10 at a Japanese market. Your best bet is to find a Japanese restaurant with a good bar that sells good sake by the glass. I started to get interested in sake about 10 years ago and it’s become one of my favorite drinks regardless of cuisine.

      December 20, 2011 at 11:15 am | Reply

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