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  • Writer's pictureJack Costa

How to Choose a Sake

So now it's time to sip some sake, but you haven't the slightest idea how to choose a bottle (Hint: the grocery clerk doesn't either). Sake is, well, sake, right? It's like wine; there's a red one and a white one. What could go wrong? 

Before you rush out and grab a random bottle of sake, you might want to know there are dozens of different styles of sake to choose from. And like wine, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly.

So in an effort to avoid permanently crippling your palate and placing sake on your “do not call” list, the following tips may help you to avoid equating sake with grandpa’s moonshine that blinded grandma for 3 days (yes, true story). 

You’ll be happy to know that the sake world has done you a solid by establishing a few helpful hints to assist you in knowing what's inside each sake bottle. Thankfully, the most helpful information is located right on the front label. 

Making the Grade... Types of Sake

The sake world has established an industry-wide system of grading sake to help consumers understand the type and style of sake being sold. Each grade has its own general flavor profile and price point associated with it. This grading system is based primarily on TWO factors:

The Rice Milling Rate (aka Polishing Ratio)

This is the extent to which the rice grain’s outer layers are milled away. The more the rice is “polished” the higher the grade of sake. Ex: A sake with a 70% milling ratio is made from rice that has had 30% of its outer husk milled away, leaving 70% of the rice grain to be used for sake production. In recent years, however, Japanese sake makers have attempted to divorce the concept of milling as a sign of quality. Rather, they believe milling rates to be a stylistic preference.

Has Alcohol Been Added

In the context of premium sake, the addition of distilled alcohol to the final sake is a common and longstanding practice. To add or not to add alcohol is a major designation defining the two primary types of sake. If the sake is labeled with the term “Junmai(June-my), it contains NO added distilled alcohol. If the sake does NOT have the term “Junmai” on its label, it means alcohol has been added to it.

This addition of alcohol is generally not an effort to make the sake more “buzz” inducing (some college students might disagree), but rather, it is added to achieve a different style of sake. As in wine, higher levels of alcohol in sake can have a significant effect on the body, intensity and broader character of the wine. Additives such as flavorings, fragrances, or color additives are not allowed in premium sakes. 

How to Read a Sake Label

Many sake labels have a wealth of helpful information such as: 

1. Sake grade (ex. Junmai vs. Daiginjo).

2.  Optimal serving temperatures.

3. Levels of relative sweetness or dryness. 

4. Rice polishing ratio. 

However, there are a few things that are mandated by law to be on every sake label.

Japanese law requires a sake label must indicate:

  1. All ingredients used (rice, koji, alcohol, etc). 

  2. Alcohol content

  3. Production date: when the sake was bottled.

  4. Storage recommendations (if the sake is pasteurized).

  5. Country of Origin. 

Don’t Be a Sake Snob, Just Yet…

While Junmai Sake is considered ultra-premium by many, don’t be so quick to saddle up your “sake snob” high horse just yet. When comparing the different grades of sake, it is not necessarily a comparison of better or worse, but rather, a comparison of styles of sake. Some people prefer apples to oranges, Pinot to Port, or Daiginjo to Junmai Ginjo sake. One sake grade is not necessarily better than the other, but rather a different style. Like different styles of wines, different grades of sake may have very different characteristics, but be equally delicious. 

One Last Note:  

Futsu Sake: Making up roughly 65% of the entire sake market, Futsu is considered the “normal” sake that can be compared to table wine. Futsu has no rice milling requirements and can be made with additions of sugar, alcohol, or acidity. While most Futsu you may want to reserve for removing those tough stains or killing slugs in your garden, don’t necessarily discount it completely as ‘cheap’ sake. Just like wine, you’ll sometimes find bottles that are inexpensive and absolutely delicious! 

Variety is the Spice of Life

In addition to the sake grading system above, there are many other sub-styles of sake based on a range of diverse and innovative brewing techniques.

  • Nigorizake: Referred to sometimes simply as Nigori. This unfiltered sake lends its cloudiness to fermented rice material that has been left purposefully in the bottle. Nigori is full-bodied and can be made in combination with other sake styles. For example, you can find Nigori Junmai or Nigori Junmai Ginjo...PS. shake well before pouring! 

  • Koshu: Unlike most sakes, Koshu is aged. Koshu must age at least 3 years at the brewery and commonly result in the sake acquiring a yellow oxidized appearance. New and interesting flavors can develop from this aging, such as caramel and dried fruits. If you like Sherry or Madeira, Koshu is the sake for you.

  • Namazake: Unlike its counterparts, Namazake is not pasteurized at any stage of the brewing process. As a result, this sake takes on a raw, almost fresh flavor. In fact, the ‘Nama’ part of Namazake means ‘raw’ or ‘fresh’. If you can find some Namazake, it's worth a try! 

  • Sparkling Sake: Just as it sounds, this style is the Sake equivalent to Champagne. Infused with carbon dioxide, naturally occurring from fermentation or artificially induced, this sparkling sake provides the prickly sensation so often found in your favorite sparkling wines. 

  • Cedar Cask Aged (Taruzake): One particularly intriguing style is cedar-aged sake. Traditionally, sake was stored and transported in cedar casks, similar to how Europeans for centuries used oak barrels for wine. The cedar container can add a refreshingly floral, sweet scent to the sake. 

  • Tokubetsu Sake: Translated quite literally as “special,” you may come across sake labeled “Tokubetsu Junmai” or “Tokubetsu Honjozo”. This style of sake contains no added alcohol, and the rice must have a polishing ratio of 60% or less. 

At this point, you’ve probably begun to notice the gradual onset of a headache, similar to those induced when learning high school chemistry or trying to figure out how to change your Facebook profile picture. This is probably because Japanese is not your first or second language and is, therefore, higgledy-piggledy in almost every way. The best method to alleviate such headaches is to, quite simply, drink some sake. Results are guaranteed. Even better, tasting various types of sake side-by-side can highlight the subtle differences in flavor profiles and help you determine which sake best suits you. It is now time to begin your sake journey, carefully, and one sip at a time. "Kanpai!" (aka cheers!).

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