Japanese Wine: 6 Sakes for Beginners to Sample

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serving sake with food

For many, sake — a Japanese fermented beverage made from rice — is known only as something you get at a sushi joint in a two-for-one special during happy hour. It’s served hot and, if you’re not used to the flavor, it might even taste off-putting at first. The thing about sake, though, it is so much more than just heated wine to go with your California roll.

There are many types of sakes out there, with the majority being divided into “ordinary sake” (the majority of the sakes available) 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.

With so many options, it might seem confusing if you walk into a store or sit down at a Japanese restaurant and attempt to choose some sake. To learn more abou sake, we sat down with Jessica Joly, who was named Miss Sake USA 2016 and is currently working on building Soul of Sake, a weekly happy hour at Sakamai in New York City.

Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo

hakkaisan sake

“Hakkaisan comes from the Niigata Precfecture, which is what I call the Napa Valley of sake. They have all four seasons and are known for their clean water streams. They’re known for really clean and crisp sake.”

Ninki Ichi Sparkling Sake

ninki ichi sparkling sake

“Sparkling sake is a great starting point too. Many times sparkling sake has a lower alcohol, which this one is at 11 percent (compared to around 17 percent). It’s fermented in bottle with a natural carbonation for softer bubbles. This is great for someone who likes Prosecco.”

Tengumai Yamahai Junmai

Tengumai Yamahai

“This is a little bolder and funky. The name translates to ”dancing goblin.’ It’s aged about 18 months. On the nose you get an oaky funkiness, and it is definitely more full-bodied. I recommend this for whisky drinkers.”

Narutotai Ginjo Nama

what is sake explained best narutotai ginjo shiboritate nama genshu

“This canned sake is juicier and more fun on the palate. It is unpasteurized (nama) and undiluted. On the palate you get a really rich flavor that is hard to be replicated because it is unpasteurized (which means that it is usually done seasonally, though this one is done year-round).”

Nanbu Bijin Shinpaku

Nanbu Bijin Shinpaku Junmai Daiginjo

“I think this is the quintessential fruity, elegant, and rounded sake. It is very fragrant on the nose, very fruit-forward, with an elegant and soft finish. It is a very easy-drinking style of sake.”

Kamoizumi Nigori Gingo

Kamoizumi Nigori Ginjo Nama

“Most of the time when people think of Nigori sake, they think dense and very sweet, but this one is not too sweet. It’s very well-balanced and very soft with a creamy mouthfeel. Also, coming from Hiroshima, it is known for quality, drier sake.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Manual’s larger Journey to Japan travel guide. Over the course of a month, our writers had the pleasure of experiencing Japan in its many forms, from high-rise bars in Tokyo to traditional tea-ceremonies in Kyoto. We hope this series of articles will not only inform, but inspire you to take your own trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.
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