Everything You Need To Know About Sake

Sake: everything you need to know

Japan’s national drink comes in a fascinating range of styles – here’s how to start exploring it

Want to learn more about sake? Read our guide to how sake is made and the different types of sake, including junmai sake and daiginjo sake. Plus, we’ve created sake cocktails for an easy way to enjoy this Japanese drink.

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Check out our best Japanese recipes here to go alongside sake…


What is sake?

Sake, a fermented drink made from rice, has been brewed in Japan for thousands of years. Silky-smooth and complex, with an intriguing umami edge that makes it a great match for food, its flavour profiles range from savoury and earthy to fruity, floral and nutty.

Sake is very versatile and can be enjoyed with a whole range of foods, from sushi, oysters, fish and chips and fried chicken to cheese and even pizza. Clocking in at similar ABVs to fortified wine, it can be sipped chilled, at room temperature or warm. It also makes a great cocktail ingredient – try it with tonic water, in a spritz or swap for vermouth in a martini. It’s gaining in popularity in the UK (which now boasts two sake breweries, in London and Cambridgeshire), as restaurants, bars and in-the-know drinkers become more acquainted with its charms.

Everything You Need To Know About Sake

How is sake made? 

The rice first needs to be milled (polished) to grind away the outer surface of each grain. The polished rice is then washed, steamed and fermented with koji (a microorganism also used to make miso and soy sauce) and yeast. Polishing is essential as it lets the koji access the starchy core in each grain of rice and convert it into sugar, which is then turned into alcohol by the yeast.


Rice polishing and alcohol in sake

Sake classifications are dictated by two factors: how much the rice has been polished, and whether extra alcohol has been added.

While the heart of a sake rice grain is rich in starch, the outer layer contains more fats, vitamins and proteins. These can adversely affect the flavours and fragrance of the sake, so brewers will polish some of this away. 

Sakes are usually graded by their rice-polishing ratios – for example, if a sake has a polishing ratio of 70% it means that 30% of the outer grain has been milled away. The lower the ratio, the more it has been polished.

Polishing affects the flavour of the final result – sakes with low polishing ratios will have a lighter, cleaner, more delicate character. Sakes with a high polishing ratio tend to have a more savoury, full-bodied nature. Generally, the former will be more expensive but not necessarily better – it depends on what you prefer to drink.

The other major factor in classifying sake is whether small amounts of distilled alcohol has been added. Adding alcohol can give a more aromatic, lighter, easy-drinking sake. It doesn’t mean the sake is more alcoholic, though, as water is added during the brewing process to dilute the drink. 

Sake with no added alcohol and made purely from rice, water, yeast and koji is designated ‘junmai’. 


The main sake categories 

Junmai

The rice has been polished to at least 70% (30% has been ground away), and the sake is made with only rice, water and koji. It tends to be more full-bodied in flavour, with higher acidity. As it’s a little richer, it’s often a good match with hearty meat dishes. Serve gently warmed or at room temperature.

Honjozo

The rice is polished to at least 70% (30% has been ground away), and alcohol has been added. Usually drier than other styles, it’s light, smooth and easy to drink – a great session sake. Serve gently warmed or chilled.

Ginjo

Made with rice polished to at least 60% (40% has been ground away), this is fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. Expect nuanced and delicate flavours, with fruit and floral notes. Drink chilled with light fish and seafood dishes. Junmai ginjo has no alcohol added. 

Daiginjo

This is ginjo sake made with rice polished to at least 50% (50% has been ground away). Regarded as one of the premium grades of sake, it’s delicate and refined. Serve chilled. Junmai daiginjo has no alcohol added.

Other types of sake

Any sake with a polishing ratio of more than 70% is called futsushu sake and is similar to table wine, with varying levels of quality. Other types you might come across include nama-zake (unpasteurised sake); nigori, which is less filtered; and koshu, which is aged sake.


Which sakes to buy?

You can find sake in good independent wine shops and some supermarkets, but for the widest selection try specialist retailers such as Japan Centre (japancentre.com). Not sure where to start? Here are a few of our favourites.

Sparkling Junmai Daiginjo Nigori ‘Pearl’ (£18/50cl, Tengusake.com)

Floral and fragrant, this sake undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle (like champagne) to give it gentle bubbles. Serve it chilled to make a quirky aperitif, or sip it with something simple like our Italian-style shredded brussels salad.

Sparkling Junmai Daiginjo Nigori ‘Pearl’

Junmai Bodaimoto ‘Rocky Mountain’ (£18, Tengusake.com)

Earthy and savoury, this sake can stand up to rich and meaty dishes, as well as, surprisingly, cheese. Heating brings out its caramel notes and is soothing on a winter night. Very flexible but would be especially good with the mushroom bolognese, wild boar bangers with cider-braised red cabbage and the potato, goat’s cheese and spring onion pies.

Junmai Bodaimoto ‘Rocky Mountain’

Sawanotsuru Deluxe Sake (£11.99, Waitrose.com)

A good entry-level sake – try it chilled to make the most of its herbaceous freshness, or warm it gently to bring out its pungent, nutty sweetness. Have it with our miso-buttered cod with broccoli, sesame and beans or our sesame-crusted salmon with sriracha-glazed veg.

Sawanotsuru Deluxe Sake

3 sake cocktails to try

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Sake cider fizz

Spike sparkling cider with sake and yuzu juice for an elegant, easy-drinking cocktail.

Sake Cider Fizz Recipe

Sake martini

Swap vermouth for sake in this Japanese-inspired take on the classic cocktail.

Sake martini

Sake and tonic

Use sake instead of gin to create a refreshing, low-ABV drink – perfect for sipping at parties.

Sake and Tonic Recipe

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(*We used Sawanotsuru Deluxe Sake, a honjozo sake available at Waitrose, £11.99)