Japanese Sake definitely has its place amongst some of the oldest brews and liquors of the world, and is growing increasingly popular in the U.S., despite—or maybe because of—Americans’ general lack of familiarity with the drink. In a country where many consumers mistakenly think of Sake as a “rice wine” (it’s actually much more akin to beer, as Sake is made from grains and not fruit), many bars and restaurants are treating it as a new discovery and not the centuries-old tradition that it is.
Over the course of my journey since starting Sake Social, I have come to appreciate the similarities (and differences) to wine and other spirits. Whether you’d like to try the wares of new American craft Sake producers, the old master tojis (Sake producers) from Japan, or even a Sake-based mixed drink at your local mustachioed craft cocktail bar, finding a place to begin with Sake can be difficult. So, like a good bartender, you should ask yourself: What do I like?
I Like White Wine
If you like a dry, aromatic wine like Pinot Grigio, try a gingo or junmai gingo. “Gingo” means the rice that makes up the Sake has been refined at least 60 percent before fermentation, leading to a refined, fruity flavor.
If you prefer your white wines sweeter, like a German Riesling, try nigori—a creamy Sake usually used in Japan after meals, which retains a little sugar and light tropical fruit notes. There may be some rice texture left in nigori, but it that’s normal, and part of the Sake’s character.
There are also bottle-conditioned sparkling versions of many styles of Sake for fans of Champagne, Prosecco, and other bubbly wines!
We recommend: The Sake Social “White Wine Drinker’s” Sake starter kit (https://www.sakesocial.com/collections/white-wine-drinkers-kit)
I Like Red Wine
If you like a bold, rustic New World red wine like a Napa Cab, try junmai. Junmai is pure rice Sake (just rice, the fermentation agent koji, and water) with no additional distilled alcohol to mellow its earthy flavor or slightly acidic finish. This Sake is recommended at room temperature or slightly warmed.
If you favor softer, more delicate red wines (think French Merlot or Oregon Pinot Noir), try a honjozo—junmai’s spiritual cousin that has been diluted with some distilled alcohol. This lightens the body of the Sake and brings out fruit flavors like cherry or lychee, and perhaps some clove and baking spice.
We recommend: Our “Red Wine Drinker’s” Sake starter kit: https://www.sakesocial.com/collections/red-wine-drinkers-kit
I Like Vodka
Whether you’d like a straight sipper or a substitute for vodka in a cocktail recipe, don’t order Sake at all; order shochu instead. Shochu is a distilled spirit, which, like vodka, can be made from number of sources (the most frequent are barley, rice, or sweet potato), and can be distilled and refined a number of times. Find an unaged, clear shochu for a lower-proof, easy-drinking vodka alternative.
We recommend: Ginza Suzume Kohaku Shochu (https://www.sakesocial.com/products/ginza-suzume-kohaku)
I Like Whiskey
If you’re a Scotch drinker, try to track down a yamahai. Yamahai is a rare and time-intensive style of sake, making up only 9 percent of Japan’s Sake output. Yamahai uses only natural yeast starter to begin the rice’s fermentation into Sake. This process takes twice as long as other production methods, and imparts a bold savory and smoky “funkiness” that, like peaty Scotch, may be an acquired taste.
If you prefer American Rye or Bourbon (or simply can’t find yamahai), try a barrel-aged shochu. The barrels used in Japan are usually cedar, which imparts a different, more peppery, character than the white oak barrels used for Whiskey in the U.S. Shochu is lower proof than Whiskey, so it’s an easy and refreshing sipping spirit even with no mixer.
We recommend: Kiminoi “Emperor’s Well” (https://www.sakesocial.com/products/kiminoi-emperors-well)
All told, no matter what our customers’ fancy is, chances are we have a perfectly preselected brew that will fit the taste palate or occasion—and hopefully kick off a journey of learning to love the experience/lore of one of the world’s oldest libations. Have a dinner event coming up? Try a bottle of Sake to shake things up. Do your homework, find the right pairing, put the bottle on ice, get some nice glasses, and let the good times roll!