Want to know about Japanese sake (Japanese rice wine)? Read our guide to sake and check out where to buy sake wine right here. We've even given you some easy recipe recommendations to drink with sake, too...
What is sake? Is it a wine?
Now that London has its first craft sake brewery, we can safely say that the Japanese beverage is now a ‘thing’ among trendsetting drinkers. Japan’s national drink is often referred to as ‘rice wine’ but is in fact made more like beer – rice is polished to reveal its starchy core, then steamed and fermented with yeast and koji, a rice-based culture used to make soy sauce, miso and mirin.
What does sake taste like?
Sake is something of a mystery to many Western drinkers. Categorisation of the various styles is complex – definitions involve to what extent the rice is polished, and whether or not any distilled alcohol has been added – and its unfamiliar flavours can make sake challenging for a palate more used to wine. It has low acidity and a characteristic twang of umami – it always reminds me of mushrooms – and whereas complexity is valued in wine, sake is all about purity and cleanness, along with a silky, almost viscous texture.
Do I drink sake hot or cold?
Most of us are familiar with it being served warm from small ceramic cups alongside sushi, but it can also be good (and less claggy) served chilled or at room temperature. And while it’s great with Japanese food, it can work well with other cuisines – its other flavours range from apple-and-pear fruits, as well as more exotic bananas and lychees, along with rose petals, spices, honey, smoke and nuts to go with its savoury earthiness.
Where can I buy sake in the UK? Which are the best sakes to try?
Sparkling Junmai Daiginjo Nigori ‘Pearl’ (£18, 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.
Niizawa Kishinamien Umeshu (£22.95, slurp.co.uk)
This sake is for people who think they don’t like sake. It’s actually a sake liqueur, made with umeshu plums, and has a lovely balance of sweet and sour. Best served chilled, either alone, on the rocks or with pudding. It would be brilliant with our blood orange and amaretti trifles.
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.
Kanpai Pure Junmai London Craft Sake (£15, Selfridges, Borough Wines, hopburnsblack.co.uk)
From a crowdfunded microbrewery in Peckham, this sake has gorgeous melon and lychee fruits with woody notes and a very clean finish. Fantastic with sushi or with earthy flavours such as our celeriac steak with salsa verde.
Sawanotsuru Deluxe Sake (£11.99, Waitrose)
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.