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?
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
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.
With a bold flavor of dried fruit and spice, this sake, brewed in San Francisco, goes well with spicy foods and meats.
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.
This bottle fermented sake has a light natural carbonation with mild effervescence similar to the mouthfeel of a Prosecco or Cava wine.
Aged for approximately a year and a half, this sake has a bold flavor profile more akin to a mild liquor than a wine.
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.)
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.
This dry sake makes a good palate cleanser served between dishes or as an aperitif before a meal.