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Sake: Where To Start?

Lots of sake gets drunk in REMOVED!Earlier this week, my friend Colleen jumped on Twitter and asked, “What’s the deal with hot sake? Is that an actual thing in Japan or just the way we serve it in America?” I have a feeling this is a very common question for Americans who know nothing about Japanese food besides sushi. They think sake is always served hot and there may be only a few varieties, and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s start with the basics. First of all, please do not call sake “SAH-KEY.” Saki is an entirely different word in Japanese, and you will get stares of incomprehension if you don’t pronounce it right. It’s “sah-kay” and sometimes in English we put an accent over the e to help you pronounce it correctly.

Ok, now that you know how to ask for it properly, you’re wondering, “Don’t I just ask for sake and take what they give me?” Depends. If you’re eating sushi at a little place not well-known for being authentic, probably. But if you’re lucky to happen upon a sushi restaurant or even an izakaya that serves a variety, this is where it gets fun!

What is sake?

Many think it’s on par with vodka or a similar clear alcohol, but really, it’s more like beer, and comes in just as many artisanal varieties and from many different regions just like beer in America. Sake is brewed, like beer is, but the main component is rice. If you’re looking for a hard alcohol made from rice, you should try shochu (and I’ll talk about that in the future). Sake is usually clear but can range in color, even taking on a caramel hue. It comes filtered and unfiltered, in big bottles and small, and is available in small handcrafted batches and from big distributors. Sounds familiar, right? And although beer is its own thing with many ingredients (and there are many different Japanese beers that are amazing too!), sake is its Japanese cousin. So, for this blog post and making sake easier to understand, I’ll use American beer comparisons.

Choosing your first sake

The most prevalent brand of sake in the U.S. is definitely Gekkeikan. I’m sure most people have seen it because it comes in small and REALLY large bottles. It’s what I would term as the Budweiser of sake, and I call it “The Gek” at home, as in, “Honey, bring a bottle of the Gek up from the basement, please!” I mainly use Gekkeikan for cooking, to be honest. It’s lower quality sake, in my opinion, but perfectly drinkable, if you drink it warm! The majority of lower quality sake is served warm to mellow out the harsh tones, and once it’s warm, I can put away a ridiculous amount of Gekkeikan. But, oh my god, the hangover!

So, in general, if this is the sake available to you, I highly recommend using it for cooking or drinking it hot on a night before you have a morning to recover. You have been warned. You can heat sake in a carafe by placing the carafe in a hot pot of water. If you’re short on time you can microwave it! Just make sure to stir it before serving to get rid of hot spots. I have just learned there are Japanese microwaves that have a sake button, like we have a popcorn button in the States. I love the Japanese.

If you have a liquor store that stocks other brands of sake, you’re in luck! There are a lot of decent sakes sitting on liquor store shelves to choose from. This is where I, as a sake novice, have the most fun. The first thing I do when confronted with new sake is look at two things: the label and the price.

Here’s the label of my favorite “everyday” sake, Tozai “Living Jewel.” I find this at my local liquor store and it runs about $15 per bottle. $15 per bottle is what I consider to be the equivalent of buying Blue Moon beer over Budweiser, great for a small gathering of people sipping sake with a meal. There’s a lot you can learn from this label: grade, profile, prefecture (where it’s made), and the kind of rice used.

Tozai “Living Jewel”, my favorite store brand, and its back label

This chart gives you a good idea on how to read the sake label in the image above. I always drink tokubetsu junmai and above cold, and I like it for dinners at home. For hot sake, I drink the lower grade, Futsu-shu.

I always look at grade first. When I want a good, drinkable sake that’s served cold, I go with junmai grade or better. In general, the better the grade, the colder its served. When I drink Living Jewel, I pull it from the fridge and pour it into a double old-fashioned. No fancy sake cups. No pretensions. Just drink and enjoy.

So look at the label! Buy something in the junmai, tokubetsu (special) junmai, ginjo, or daiginjo (daiginjo being the best) grade.

Once you have a real interest and taste for sake and want more, try experimenting with sake from different regions. Recently, I’ve been buying from Iwate prefecture which was hit by the earthquake and tsunami. If you’re interested, here’s a great article from The Japan Times Online about Tohoku’s brewery one year on from the tsunami. When I’m out at a sake bar in NYC, I buy Nanbu Bijin. It’s my favorite upscale sake from the Iwate prefecture.

If you're wondering what kind of sake to drink when, then this scale is for you! But remember that you can drink sake just about any time. This scale is only for reference or if you'd like to be a little more sophisticated with your choices.

I’ve used my sake knowledge in the first book of the Nogiku Series, REMOVED, of course. The story starts out with Sanaa celebrating her 20th birthday. In Nishikyō, the city in which she lives, the legal drinking age is 20 so when she shows up at the izakaya to celebrate, her bartender friend immediately pulls out a bottle of daiginjo sake and serves her. He doesn’t heat it because daiginjo is the best grade of sake and it’s served cold. I’m sure if you know nothing about sake, you would probably read that and thinking something was wrong with my story! Hopefully now you know.

Storing your sake

Rule of thumb: store sake how you bought it. If you bought it from the shelf, store it on the shelf. If you bought it from the cooler, store it in the fridge. If it’s served chilled, put it in the fridge ahead of time and then keep it there. Sake never goes bad! Seriously. I’ve bought sake, drank half the bottle, and then let it sit for up to three weeks before drinking more. It DOES change in flavor, though. Sake, as the brewer intended for it to taste, should be consumed within 24-48 hours of opening. When I’ve had a bottle in the fridge for a long time, I tend to use it for cooking and then move onto a fresh bottle.

Feeling adventurous?

You’re out at a nice Japanese restaurant, one that offers a wide variety of sakes, and are totally confused by the menu? Do yourself a favor, put on a smile and ask for a recommendation. I bet the waitstaff or bartender would be more than happy to help! In fact, if you can, ask for a tasting flight of sake. This is a great place to start. Try a few and figure out what you like best, then ask to see the bottle. I have been to many bars in NYC and done this. It’s not uncommon to find me taking out my iPhone and snapping a pic of the label so I won’t forget! It always makes the bartender smile.

Want more info?

I have three favorite sake books to recommend!

  • The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur’s Guide – This is great starter information with thorough background on types of sakes, how to read the labels, how to pair sake with food, the regions and their styles.
  • Sake: A Modern Guide – Also great starter information but has a fun section full of sake cocktails and food to pair with sake.
  • The Sake Handbook – I use this to find common sake and learn more about it. It contains information on the top 100 brands and gives good tips for choosing a sake.