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Saké and Where To Start

  • Japan

Recently a friend of mine asked, “What’s the deal with hot saké? 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 saké 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 saké 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 Saké?

Many think saké is 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. Saké 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). Saké 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!), saké is its Japanese cousin. So, for this blog post and making saké easier to understand, I’ll use American beer comparisons.

Choosing Your First Saké

The most prevalent brand of saké 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 saké, 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 saké, in my opinion, but perfectly drinkable, if you drink it warm! The majority of lower quality saké 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 saké 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 saké 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 saké 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 saké, you’re in luck! There are a lot of decent saké sitting on liquor store shelves to choose from. This is where I, as a saké novice, have the most fun. The first thing I do when confronted with new saké is look at two things: the label and the price.

Here’s the label of my favorite “everyday” saké, 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 saké 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 saké label in the image above. I always drink tokubetsu junmai and above cold, and I like it for dinners at home. For hot saké, I drink the lower grade, Futsu-shu.

I always look at grade first. When I want a good, drinkable saké that’s served cold, I go with junmai grade or better. In general, the better the grade, the colder it's served. When I drink Living Jewel, I pull it from the fridge and pour it into a double old-fashioned. No fancy saké 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 saké and want more, try experimenting with saké 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 saké bar in NYC, I buy Nanbu Bijin. It’s my favorite upscale saké from the Iwate prefecture.

If you're wondering what kind of saké to drink when, then this scale is for you! But remember that you can drink saké 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 plenty of my knowledge of saké in the Miso Cozy Mysteries Series. In MATSURI AND MURDER, we travel to Kayo's hometown where her parents own a saké brewery.

Storing Your Saké

Rule of thumb: store saké 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. Saké never goes bad! Seriously. I’ve bought saké, drank half the bottle, and then let it sit for up to three weeks before drinking more. It DOES change in flavor, though. Saké, 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 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 sakés, 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 saké. 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 saké books to recommend!

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