Sake isn’t just for Japanese food anymore—it’s popping up in top restaurants all over the world as the perfect pairing for all kinds of cuisines. Crisp and clean, it’s delicious with everything from spicy south Asian dishes to French seafood. But if you’re like me, it’s hard to know what to order, and it’s even harder to explain what kind of sake I like. Here’s everything you need to know to get started on really enjoying Japan’s national drink and ordering like a pro!
Step 1: Sake Tasting Boot Camp
First of all, the basics. My friend Mac—who is far and away the best tour guide in Tokyo, and runs killer sake tasting tours—is a Cetrified Sake Professional, and he’s made a video that teaches you everything you need to know about sake in 11 minutes, including:
• Why you should never call it “rice wine,” even though it’s got a similar alcohol content and is sold in wine bottles
• How to judge the taste of sake (which is different from judging wine)
• Why expensive sake isn’t always the best sake
• Why hot sake is not bad sake (and what is important when making a good sake)
Step 2: Reading the label
When the wine guy at a restaurant comes to your table and you want to ask for a suggestion, it’s easy to describe what kind of wine you like—dry or fruity, made from certain grapes or from a certain region—but sake is described differently, and it helps to know how to do it so you end up with a drink you enjoy. Here are the major things to look for:
How much of the rice has been polished away before it’s made into sake? This is where you hear the words “ginjō” and “dai-ginjō” and “honjōzō,” which roughly correspond to how expensive the sake is, because the more of each grain you polish away, the more time it takes to do that and the more rice you need to make the sake.
These characters will be on the front of the bottle. If you see:
ginjō (geen-joe) means 40% of the rice grain has been polished away, leaving 60% of it to be made into sake.
dai-ginjō (die-geen-joe) means at least 50% of the rice gran has been polished away
honjōzō (hone-joe-zoe) means at least 70% of the rice grain has been polished away
junmai (june-my) means “made from pure rice” without the addition of brewer’s alcohol. Nowadays, brewer’s alcohol is added to some sakes to increase the complexity of the flavor in certain ways, not to “cheat” on the fermentation or turn it into a skid row tipple. Sakes that aren’t “junmai” aren’t inferior, they just taste a little different from “junmai” sakes, and may pair better with certain foods.
Where do you find these words?
And on the back label, you can find more detailed information:
seimaibuai (say-my-boo-eye) means exactly how much of the rice grain is left after being milled. For example, “精米歩合45%” means that 55% of it was milled away, leaving 45% of the rice grain.
For example, “アルコホール分 16度” means “16% alcohol”
Step 3: Choosing your sake
“Kara-kuchi” or “Ama-kuchi”?
Wine is usually described as “sweet” or “dry,” but sake is often referred to as “ama-kuchi” or “kara-kuchi.” These Japanese words are often translated incorrectly as “sweet” or “dry” (probably to make people who know what kind of wine they like to feel more comfortable ordering sake), but this gives the wrong impression about what to expect from the taste.
It also might lead you to think that “dry” sake is more sophisticated/cool than “sweet” sake (especially if you’re already a wine aficionado). But this is definitely not the case—many people (like meeeee!) love their wine dry, but find “amakuchi” sake crisper and lighter.
Let’s try to get a little closer to the real meaning of the words “kara-kuchi” and “ama-kuchi.”
karakuchi (kah-rah-koo-chee) is often translated as “dry” but the characters literally mean “pungent mouth.” A more correct meaning for “kara-kuchi” is that the sake has a distinctive or complex flavor, rather than tasting simple and clean. (The character 辛 can mean anything from “salty” to “spicy” when used to describe other foods, for example.) “Kara-kuchi” sake tends to have high SMV numbers (the specific gravity of a liquid compared to water), which means these actually have more sugar in them than “ama-kuchi” sake.
amakuchi (ah-mah-koo-chee) literally means “sweet mouth” but that doesn’t mean the sake has a sugary taste. “Ama-kuchi” sake has an SMV number less than zero, corresponding to a pure, clean taste with fewer complex flavor notes.
Here’s a grid you can print out for your guests to plot their tasting impressions on, if you like:
“Sake Meter Value” and “Acidity” are the two measurable pieces of data you’re most likely to find in a serious sake buyer’s guide. If you know the numbers associated with these, you can plot the sakes you choose on this graph, then when you taste them, you can decide which kind you like best.
Here, for example, are a few descriptions of some sakes you might choose for a tasting from the True Sake online store. Note how at the bottom of the description, they give the SMV and Acidity values:
And here’s where these three would fall on the graph, using the SMV and acidity numbers at the bottom of each description:
How do I find this info if I’m shopping for sake at my local market or BevMo equivalent?
Whip out your phone and check it out online! Look at the name on the label and google it. Unless you read Japanese, this does limit you to buying sakes with the name translated from its Japanese characters into the ABCs, but many excellent sake imports have local language labels on the back. Even if the front label is all in Japanese, check the back, and you can probably find the name of the sake written there using the ABCs. If not, look for the brewer’s website URL and check that.
If you’re lucky, True Sake or another online sake purveyor also sells the sake you’re considering, and you can get superb tasting notes like the ones above. But if not, your best bet for learning the SMV and acidity numbers is from the brewer or distributor’s website.
Step 4: Tasting!
The two main things you’ll have to decide before your tasting are:
• What temperature to serve the sake at
• What kind of sake to buy so you can learn about the differences between them
Most professionals taste sake at a temperature known as “jō-on,” a word that is commonly translated as “room temperature”:15-20°C (59-68°F). (Um, I don’t know about you, but that only says “room temperature” to me if you happen to live in a wine cellar! Brr.) Anyway, serve it cool, not cold.
If you prefer to taste them warm, though, that’s not wrong. Some like to taste sake cool first, then warm it up and taste the difference (because it will taste very different). But if you do warm it up, only do it in the microwave if you’re doing it little by little, being very careful not to overheat it. (Sake that has been boiled is not good sake!) The best way to heat it is by pouring it into a sake server, then standing it in a pan of water on the stove. Like this:
How to choose a nice selection for comparing/contrasting
#1: The Apples-To-Apples
Choose sakes that are all ginjō, or all dai-ginjō, or all honjōzō, but have very different SMVs, ranging from kara-kuchi to ama-kuchi.
#2: The “Does it really matter how much rice was polished away?” taste test
Choose one ginjō, one dai-ginjō, and one honjōzō, all with similar acidities and SMVs, and see if you can tell the difference (and if the one you like best is also the cheapest, WIN!)
#3: Junmai or not-junmai, that is the question
Choose a variety of sakes that are the same grade (all ginjō or dai-ginjō) but which aren’t all junmai—compare the taste of the ones made from rice only (junmai) to those that have had brewer’s alcohol added.
#4: The Big Tent: Taste the full range of varieties for maximum contrast
Mix and match ginjō, dai-ginjō, honjōzō, and nigori (the unfiltered hazy kind), with all kinds of SMVs and acidities, to get an idea of what’s out there and what taste you like best.
What to eat with sake
Naturally, sake goes great with Japanese food! Browse all the Japanese Home Cooking goodness in the Japanagram Recipe Collection for the dishes I like to eat with my sake.
But sake also tastes great with other cuisines! Here are some of my favorite pairings:
• Seafood: Crisp, light sake (ones with lower acidity and SMV) are delicious with dishes you might drink a dry white wine with.
• Spicy: Mid-range sakes taste great with dishes you might usually enjoy a beer or a fruitier white wine with. (“Nigori,” for example, goes great with Indian food – think lassi!)
• Pork: More complex sakes are quite delicious with pork dishes. Look for those with higher SMV and higher acidity
And finally, can I tell you the thing I love best about sake tasting?
There’s no wrong answer. The snobbery that has grown up around wine makes it hard to admit (for example) that your favorites are actually inexpensive wines that don’t require a lifetime of tasting to appreciate. But nobody will judge you for your taste in sake, because not enough people know anything about it to have an opinion (or, dare I say, a misplaced one?) All that you and your friends have to do at a sake tasting is discover the ones you really like the taste of, without any pretension or snobbery or fancy jargon.
I hope you have fun discovering this new taste treat, and that your guests have a great time too.
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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had