but more important,
than you might
Sake is not distilled.
It is brewed, similar to beer.
Sake is not only served hot.
Premium sake is best served chilled. Hot sake is typically cheap liquid.
Sake is not only for Japanese food.
Premium sake pairs incredibly well with a wide range of world cuisines.
Sake is not only made in Japan.
Premium sake is made in Japan, the U.S., Australia, and British Columbia.
Sake is not only for Japanese/Asian
Myths To Squash
Sake is best served in square wooden cups
or little shot glasses.
nice piece of history and tradition but it does nothing for the sake.
Sake is for dropping into pint of beer.
Sake bombs are for chugging beer, not enjoying sake.
going to cause a hangover. Sake just happens to be easier on you.
Sake is wine.
Nope, it’s sake. Sake. Sake.
Myths To Squash
unique beverage and deserves it’s own identity. That is certainly true, but
in a world that is trying to understand saké, it is not easy to be so
definitive and may not be a good idea.
Saké is like beer in that it is a brewed beverage made from a grain (rice),
water and yeast. Unlike beer, or spirits, the grain is not malted to convert
starch to sugar and no hops are
The finished beverage is like grape wine and often carries some
similarities in flavor. While purists would also have you sipping saké
from traditional o-chokko’s (little shot-like cups), saké, like wine, is best
experienced from stemware. Any white wine glass will do, however,
there are saké specific glasses made by such companies as Riedel.
Is It Beer or Wine?
and pear notes or sweet and fruity carrying tropical and
stone fruit flavors. Aroma can range from faint citrus to
deep earthy floral sweet tones.
Saké is not measured by residual sugar but on a scale that
measures the density of saké compared to water. This
scale is called Saké Meter Value (Nihonshu-do for those
who speak Japanese), or SMV, and is found on most
labels showing a plus or minus number. The higher the
positive number the drier the saké. The lower the
negative number the sweeter the saké. While the SMV
number provides a glimpse at sweetness it can be
misleading due to the flavor impact of acid, water
hardness and temperature. A saké can be rated a +6 but
taste fruity and somewhat sweet, what you might
consider a -2. Use the SMV scale as a guide but be sure
you taste the saké to be sure you know if it is dry and
crisp or fruity sweet.
Bone Dry – Fruit Sweet
temperature fluctuation. Actually, the colder the better down to
freezing. Cold storing slows the aging process and allows even
unpasteurized saké to hold up longer.
Don’t age it in the typical wine cellar and don’t hold it for years
thinking it may improve. Saké is bottled ready to drink. Saké is
best enjoyed young and has a 12 – 18 month shelf life if not
stored cold. At about a year, saké begins to show more rapid
flavor changes as it gets more earthy and mushroomy in aroma
and flavor with an increasingly dense body. It’s not going bad
but is changing from the expected.
served hot in the little pitchers (tokkuris) and cups (o-
chokkos). They are accustomed to drinking it fast, like a
shot and not really thinking about its flavor. What they
don’t know, is that their hot saké is bulk, cheap, mass
produced and if not hot, probably doesn’t taste too good.
Think bulk, box wine – the cheapest of the jugs. While in
Japan there are some styles that are wonderful when served
warm in the winter, very few are available in the states.
The premium saké of today is best served chilled, not ice
cold, but chilled. About where you’d serve your Pinot Gris,
or Sauvignon Blanc (48 – 55 F). As you taste various saké
start them out cold, then let them warm in the glass and
taste as it warms. The flavor will change and the ideal point
for presentation will be clear. Note this and show each saké
at the temperature you find the most flavor present.
To Be Hot Or Not To Be Hot
is a wine glass. While we would like to stand firm on that as
the only way to serve saké, we do understand that many
restaurants want an authentic vibe to their presentation. For
that, the Tokkuri (pitcher) and o-chokko (little cup) are the
best method. For special presentation they may want to
consider a masu cup (square cup).
It is important to talk about the serving options with your
account. Some, like many of the non-Asian restaurants who
are adding saké, may find the cost of the traditional vessels
prohibitive to adding sake to their list. They need to know that
they already have the best drinking vessel for saké; their wine
glasses. No further investment needed except the saké.
explore, has brought about some interesting concepts like the sakétini and the
saké bomb. One is viable, the other simply sad from a saké enthusiast’s
Sakétinis evolved as a means to get Americans to drink saké in any form
possible. Sakétinis were a tasty and easy option. Some wonderful cocktails were
created and today we find the nation’s leading mixologists promoting the idea
due to the lower alcohol, calorie and glucose option. We have found that saké
adds character (body & flavor) to a cocktail with spirits and when mixed in
balance with fresh fruit and herbs, the saké flavor becomes a delicious
component of a cocktail. Properly made sakétinis are about balance and respect
the nature of saké.
Dropping a “shot” of saké into a pint of beer (saké bomb) with a ritual of
chanting is fun for a youthful crowd. It is not, however, about drinking saké –
more about drinking beer, fast. Some accounts promote saké bombs because
they are profitable. We’ll not take that away, but promoting responsible,
appropriate consumption is a priority to moving saké forward in America.
Drink sake, not bombs.
To Bomb Or ‘Tini
A peek into the process of brewing saké.
Saké is brewed from rice (no other grain) with
water, yeast and koji being the only other
ingredients. What makes it very unique in the
realm of beverage are two things:
Koji: Aspergillus Oryzae – a mold that is
applied to the rice grains.
Multiple Parallel Fermentation:
Saccharification and fermentation taking
place at the same time.
Rice, the foundation of saké, comes in many
varieties but, like grapes are to wine, only a
few are good for brewing saké.
Varieties have been cultivated for centuries
and today there are about a dozen that are
highlighted for saké brewing due to their
hardness (impacts milling), aroma and flavor.
Regional varieties of rice differ and are the
source of local pride, allowing a sense of
It is important to know the variety of rice used
in the saké you drink but not critical. Back
labels & brochures are sources of rice clarity.
Names that you will most commonly see
include Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku,
Akita Komachi, Miyamanishiki, etc.
Once rice is harvested and the hull removed, it is
up to the brewer to define how much of the grain
they want polished off. It is here that saké quality
is measured, by how much of the grain is kept.
Specialty millers manage the polishing process to
the exacting standards of the brewer. A key goal is
to minimize cracking and breakage of the grain
which will negatively impact the Koji process by
allowing Koji mold to grow to quickly into the
The Japanese term shows up frequently today so
don’t be caught off guard. Seimaibuai = Milling/
Junmai, Futsu, Honjozo
tend be less than 60%.
There is no required %
associated with these terms
remove all residual flour.
Next, the rice gets a good soak. The length of
soaking time is defined by the rice strain and
water saturation goals. A stopwatch is used to
be precise in timing down to the millisecond.
Such precision is necessary to ensure to
maximized koji growth and penetration into the
The final step in prepping rice for either Koji or
straight to brewing, is to steam. This is done at
about 195° Celsius in either a belt steamer or
kettle. If in a kettle, the rice is separated from
the steel with thick cotton cloths and carefully
layered to allow the steam to find its own path
allowing for even steaming. A belt steamer
moves the rice through a flat pressure steamer
and provides even, steady steam for enhanced
critical step in making saké was to chew the rice
and spit it into a bucket. This gathered enzymes
that aided in breaking down the grain.
Thankfully, that step is no longer needed but the
process of making koji is still considered the
most sacred step in production.
Enter Koji (aspergillus oryzae), a mold that
grows on the steamed, but cooled, rice and in
doing so digests it with enzymes that convert
the starch into sugars.
Koji spores are applied to the steamed rice
which is then carefully managed with
temperature and humidity controls. Slight shifts
in temperature, length of time, or humidity can
mean the difference between perfectly fragrant
and rich yeast food and old smelly sneakers.
Koji also adds a good deal of flavor to saké.
create food for the yeast that rice is polished, washed,
steamed and covered with Koji. In doing this we convert
the hard grain into soft, sweet kernels, perfect for
consumption by yeast.
There are about 14 commercial yeast strains available to
brewers. Each has it’s own aroma and flavor profile and
interacts with the rice in different ways. Yeast is selected
for the desired end result.
Some of the older brewers in Japan also use proprietary
yeast that has been cultivated at their kura for decades or
centuries. This provides the kura with uniqueness and
when combined with local rice and water provides a
definition of terroir for saké.
ingredient since rice has no juice to press out, but it is
often overlooked. Sake is about 80% water.
Ideal brewing water is low in minerals with little to
no iron. Iron will cause saké to darken and create
undesirable aromas and flavors. It is also known to
hasten the aging process.
Manganese interacts with light causing saké to
become discolored and dampen the overall look and
Good elements in brewing water include potassium,
magnesium and phosphoric acid. These aid
propagation of yeast and development of Koji.
The flavor of the water is also very important as the
water used in brewing is also used in diluting sake. A
majority of all sake is diluted to reduce alcohol and
and water come together is the moto tank (first
Here, yeast begins to feed on the sugars and
starches and the natural processes begin to do
After a few days, the moto is added to a larger
brewing tank where more Koji rice, steamed rice
and water is added as desired.
The sakémaster’s role now is to carefully manage
brewing temperature, food and time. A brew that
is too warm will go to quickly, one that is too
cool will be slow and could stop short of desired
alcohol levels. Manipulating temp and time will
help define flavor and body in the finished saké.
In beer or winemaking, saccharification and
fermentation are sequential, but in sake, multiple steps
take place at the same time –
Multiple & Parallel
This is because the koji rice is in the fermenter at the
simultaneously. What is magical is that the enzymes
are slowly releasing sugar to the yeast, which is in turn
slowly eating the sugar. This natural management
process allows the yeast to digest sugars over time
instead of rapidly, therefore allowing alcohol levels to
be much higher than beer or wine. Saké actually has
the highest fermented alcohol level of all fermented
the remnants of
brewing need to be removed.
As noted, real old school pressing is simply allowing it
to free run from a hanging cloth sack. This is called
or free drip.
is another old traditional style using a
wood box filled with sacks of saké mash that are
pressed with weight. There are three phases of this
style. The first being
where saké flows
freely from the sacks.
” is drawn from the
first press. And,
is the last of the saké drawn
out by hard squeezing to get the last drop.
press is a modern machine that pumps the
saké through screens that catch the sediment and
clarify the saké. About 90% of all saké is pressed this
way. Also known as
process in winemaking. The heavy bits have been
removed leaving a fairly clear liquid but retaining
small bits that can cause the liquid to be hazy. To
remove this, an optional charcoal filtration is
implemented. This stage is referred to as
and is used to strip out particulates and coagulated
proteins. Filtration may be done multiple times
depending on the need or desired impact. This
process can also remove desirable flavors so it’s use
is managed carefully.
is a style of saké that has not been filtered.
It is often hazy, yellowish and to old ideals it less
than perfect. To Western standards it may taste richer
and fruitier compared to it’s filtered version.
pasteurization, Japanese saké brewers were
heat treating their brews to stabilize them
and make sure they would not go bad too
Today, saké is typically pasteurized twice,
once after filtration and once at bottling.
Some high-end saké are bottled between
pasteurizations and then pasteurized in
This step allows saké to be stored for longer
periods of time. Without this process it
would quickly change in flavor and density.
Raw, unpasteurized saké is
(technically speaking it is Hon-
Nama). If stored cold, it can age gracefully
for several years. At room temperature, it
changes rapidly and ends up earthy, overly
nutty and off-tasting. Nama is a dynamic
style that is often more dense in body,
fruitier, sweeter and a bit effervescent.
have had a
single pasteurization. They can be stable for
months but are best drunk young.
in large stainless steel tanks until bottling.
The length of time sake is stored is defined
by the desired flavor profile.
Young sake (1-3 months)tends to be more
fruity, sweet and fresh tasting. Sake with
some age (4-6 months) begins to balance
and have a more streamlined profile.
Additional agng brings out an earthiness
that is accentuated with hints of
Various approaches will have sake aging at
sub freezing temperatures for years at a
time. This keeps a fresh fruity profile but
brings in a subtle aged appeal.
Aging is defined by the desire of flavor and
body and varies by style, brewery and
with a large format bottle as a 1.8 L.
In the U.S., saké is bottled in the standard wine size
of 750 ml but then it varies with both 300 ml and
375 ml being offered and some 1.8 L options.
While there are some standard sizes, saké is also
found in 180 ml, 200 ml, 500 ml bottles, aseptic
boxes, large 18 L boxes (mostly for restaurants).
There is currently a trend in 300 ml bottles both on
and off-premise as this size helps facilitate
sampling and allows larger saké lists/sets.
Over 4 Days
Rice is polished to desired amount remaining.
Rice is washed, soaked and then steamed.
Koji spores are added to steamed rice and the mold is
Koji rice, steamed rice, yeast and water are added to a
moto tank for the first brew.
A finished moto is added to a larger brewing vessel to
After brewing, the saké is filtered and pasteurized,
Bottled and ready to go.
Diversity of flavor and
region, or more precisely by
Prefecture. Each Prefecture
has variation in rice, water,
climate and yeasts. In many
cases, Prefecture distinction is
a source of pride and carries a
seal of quality like the
“Niigata OC” which defines
ingredients and style. It was
once said that, in general
terms, saké brewed in the
North is light and mellow
while saké in the South is big
and hearty. This is a rule of
thumb and does not always
There are currently (Dec. 2009) six saké brewers in the U.S. (4 in
California) with a majority of production being focused on the hot
saké market. The first sake brewpub, Moto-I, opened in Minneapolis in
2008 and 2011 saw the opening of Texas Sake Company in Austin.
One Japanese brewer, Takara, has stepped up to produce a more
diverse portfolio while SakéOne in Oregon began as a premium
producer of Junmai Ginjo styles. It is from the efforts of SakéOne that
craft saké, flavor infused saké, Genshu and Nigori styles have been
elevated to prominent categories. Today, SakéOne’s Momokawa
Diamond is the leading Junmai Ginjo and Momokawa Pearl the
leading Nigori Genshu. Their infused Moonstone brand leads its niche
while G Joy dominates the Genshu category
Sake is bottled for consumption, not for aging. Unlike wine, more
However, unlike Scotch, sake does not hold up for a long time in
the bottle, maybe 12 – 18 months at average room temperature.
Longer if stored cold.
So, it is again, beer like. Freshness matters and buying to consume
within a short amount of time should rule purchasing patterns.
Should you choose to store it, put it in the fridge. If you put it in
the cellar with your wine and allow it to age for a few years it may
be better to simply leave it there. A recent tasting of a 5 year old,
cellar aged, sake was an unpleasant event. What once once a great
bottle of sake had gone very bad. A similar tasting of a 10 year old
sake that was cold stored presented a very pleasant and surprising
batch can be managed in dozens of ways to end up with dozens of
styles. From one Junmai Ginjo could come a Nigori, a Yamahai,
Shiburitate, Shizuoku, Genshu……It’s simply amazing.
Sake has 7 categories and from these come thousands of styles.
Luckily there are a set of core styles to focus on.
Think bulk, industrial box wine.
): Sake that contains any amount of
added spirits. Can be very little as in the case of artisanal
sake or can be a large quantity as in the case of Futsu.
water, yeast and koji. Quality and flavors vary greatly.
): Sake made from rice that is polished/
milled to at least 60% of its original size. Has added
spirits in small amounts.
Junmai Ginjo: Sake made from rice that is polished/
milled to at least 60% of its original size. Nothing added.
polished/milled to at least 50% of its original size. Has
added spirits in small amounts.
Junmai Daiginjo: Sake made from rice that is polished/
milled to at least 50% of its original size. Nothing added.
Ginjo and Daiginjo can be either Honjozo or Junmai.
Basic table saké.
Cheaply made and
generally low in quality.
Saké made from only
the 4 pure ingredients
(rice, water, yeast &
Koji). Nothing else
Junmai made with rice
polished to at least
60%. Premium grade.
50%. Ultra Premium.
Saké with distilled
alcohol added. Small
amounts in artisanal
saké and larger volume
in cheap options.
Honjozo made with rice
Infused: An American addition but slowly showing up
in Japan. Simply means flavor added whether as raw
fruit or flavor concentrate.
Karakuchi: Dry or very dry.
Nama: Raw, unpasteurized.
Nigori: Partially filtered. Literally means “cloudy”
Organic: USDA certified organic sake is important in
Shizuku: Saké filtered by allowing it to slowly drip from
cotton bags with no pressure applied. Often found with
Tanrei: Light clean and crisp style.
Tokubetsu: Designates a “special” saké. Often made with
rice milled more than standard.
Yamahai: Lactic acid is allowed to interact with the yeast
during fermentation leading to more wild and gamey
The sake name is a string of descriptors that define what is in the
bottle. By understanding the classifications and the main
styles you can easily know what each saké is. Be careful
though, not all terms go together like Junmai Honjozo, or
Shizuku and Funashibori. Can’t have both in one saké.