What Is Sake? Everything You Need to Know About Japan’s Ancient Rice Wine

You’ve heard of sake before. It’s that moderately boozy drink you get at a sushi joint in a two-for-one special during happy hour. Sometimes it’s served hot, sometimes it’s cold, and you’re not really sure why, but you like the little cups. That all sound about right? So wait, do you actually know what sake is?

sake pouring
Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa/Getty Images

What is Sake?

The national beverage of Japan, sake (pronounced “sah-KAY”) is a fermented rice wine that has been enjoyed since at least the 8th century CE, though some historians believe it was consumed hundreds of years earlier. It is brewed using highly polished sake mai rice, water, a mold called Aspergillus oryzae (also used in the fermentation of soy sauce), and yeast. Fine sakes are aged for a year or more, and most variations have an alcohol by volume content of between 15 percent and 20 percent alcohol by volume. (Strong undiluted sake, called Genshu, might have an ABV of 20 percent plus.)

As for the hot/cold conundrum, the simple rule of thumb is that higher quality sakes should be served slightly chilled, while cheaper sakes should be warmed up. Cooler temperatures (45 degrees or so) allow the full flavor profile of the sake to emerge. A cheaper sake with a rougher flavor profile (think sweeter and fruitier) benefits from warmth because some of the off notes are less easily discerned.

Unlike with wines, however, sake temperature is by and large a matter of personal preference. As long as you don’t chill it below 40 degrees or heat it above 105 or so, you’re not doing it wrong.

There are myriad types of sake out there, but the majority are divided into two categories. These are Ordinary Sake, which constitutes the bulk of the beverage, and Special Designation Sake, of which there are eight different varieties. The different designations reference the amount of polishing the rice has gone through, in addition to a few other elements.

And now that you know the 4-1-1 about the stuff, here are eight sakes you should try.

Best Sakes to Try

Heaven Sake Junmai Daiginjo
what is sake explained best heaven product photo

Created by a French winemaker teamed up with a traditional Japanese sake brewer, this superlative sake has notes of pears, berries, and wine grapes. Only problem? It costs more than $100 a bottle.

Sequoia Sake Genshu
what is sake explained best sequoia genshu product shot

With a bold flavor of dried fruit and spice, this sake, brewed in San Francisco, goes well with spicy foods and meats.

Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
what is sake explained best hakkaisan v2

Hakkaisan is made from the Niigata Prefecture, a place celebrated for its water. It’s a clean, crisp sake. that makes a good starting point for the novice drinker.

Ninki Ichi Sparkling Sake
what is sake explained best ninki ichi sparkling v2

This bottle fermented sake has a light natural carbonation with mild effervescence similar to the mouthfeel of a Prosecco or Cava wine.

Tengumai Yamahai Junmai
what is sake explained best tengumai yamahai v2

Aged for approximately a year and a half, this sake has a bold flavor profile more akin to a mild liquor than a wine.

Narutotai Ginjo Nama
what is sake explained best narutotai ginjo shiboritate nama genshu v2

Unpasteurized and undiluted this canned sake has bright fruity notes that make it a great candidate for serving warm. (It’s not low quality, it just tastes great that way.)

Nanbu Bijin Shinpaku
what is sake explained best nanbu bijin shinpaku v2

This white wine-like sake goes down smooth and easy and is good to enjoy by the glass instead of the small cup. Just keep it to one or two glasses.

Kamoizumi Nigori Gingo
what is sake explained best kamoizumi nigori v2

This dry sake makes a good palate cleanser served between dishes or as an aperitif before a meal.

Outdoors

The Best Cooking Gear for Car Camping and Backpacking

We’ve rounded up the best camping utensils and appliances to help you make the perfect meal right beside the truck or 20 miles from it.
Food & Drink

6 Best Aged Rums Over $50 and Under $100

When it comes to sipping, a good aged rum — one that is crafted with care, quality, and time — can rival any other aged spirit any day of the week.
Living

The Best Presidents’ Day Sales on Sheets and Bedding

Presidents' Day is the best times to treat yourself to luxury bedding deals.
Auto

All the Presidents’ (Coolest) Cars: A Look at How the POTUS Rolls

The presidential state car serves as a reflection of technological progress, the style of the time, and the stark realities of safety and security concerns.