How To Drink Sake Like An Adult

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Sake to me. (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)

Your earliest memories of sake may have been in college when you were at a cheap sushi joint, pounding the table with your buddies to get your sake shot to dive into your beer off a pair of chopsticks. But how do you drink the fermented rice beverage like a civilized adult?

While many Americans have come to learn the nuances between an IPA and lager or a chardonnay and pinot noir, it can be a little daunting at times to demystify the world of sake.

What are the flavor notes of different kinds of sake? Should it be drunk hot or cold, and paired with what dishes? Should you age your bottle of sake? As you can see, I had many questions.

To get a better understanding of the beverage from a beginner's perspective, I interviewed Kerry Tamura—a sake expert and sales representative at World Sake Imports who previously owned a sake lounge in his hometown of Chicago—over sake and Japanese food at Robata Jinya in Beverly Grove. And for additional insight, he brought along with him two other experts: Sho Nomoto, a third generation artisanal sake brewer and president of his family's Akitabare brewery; and Kei Uchigasaki of Hoyo Fine Japanese Sake, a brewery that his family has run for 360 years.

Consider this your "Sake 101" class.

THE BASICS

There are three main types of sake. In order from least to most expensive:
1) Junmai
2) Ginjo
3) Daiginjo

Of the three, junmai has a stronger flavor, and the ginjo and daiginjo are lighter and more aromatic.

All of these sake types are made from special rice grains. What sets them apart are two things: how much each grain of rice is polished off and how many ingredients are in it. For the sake rice grain, the flavor is concentrated in the center, which has a white, pearly color. The outer layer of the rice contains fat and proteins, has an opaque color, and is something that highly impacts the flavor of the sake. So to get to the juicy center of that grain, brewers have to shave off (aka polish) the outer layers. The more you polish off the outside of the grain, the more you get of the pure center. There are also more aromatics that come out and lift the flavor of the sake, making the drink lighter and more refreshing, crisper and brighter.

By Japanese governmental standards, in order for a junmai to be a junmai, at least 30 percent of the sake rice grain must be polished. For ginjo, it's at least 40 percent, and for daiginjo, 50 percent.

Going back to the ingredients, junmai simply has four: water, rice, yeast and koji—a bacteria used to help break down the grain through a fermentation process. Ginjo and daiginjo are made of the same four ingredients but also include distilled alcohol. That helps lift the flavors and aromatics of the sake.

This nifty chart below shows what I'm talking about:

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(Tamura says this chart alone would unlock all the mysteries of sake to the average drinker, so study it well.)

Congrats, you've now graduated from learning about the three main sake categories! As a bonus, I'll lightly touch upon other types (though, the focus on this article will generally be on the main three). As you can see in the chart above, there are three more kinds of sake: honjozo, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. These other three are like extensions of the first three, and all have to do with the ingredients and percentage of polished rice grain. Honjozo has all five ingredients, but is polished at 30 percent. Junmai ginjo has the four basic ingredients and is polished at 40 percent, and junmai daiginjo is made of the four basic ingredients and is polished at 50 percent. The taste differences are subtle; for example, a junmai ginjo will be lighter and more aromatic than just a regular junmai because it's polished more, but it'll still have the rice-y flavor profile that's characteristic of junmai. A honjozo will still be bold, but also crisp because of the distilled alcohol added to it.

FLAVOR PROFILES

Junmai: Remember, junmai has stronger, more rice-y flavors than ginjo and daiginjo. And yes, it's OK to describe the flavor of sake as being "rice-y" without sounding stupid. Tamura says:

It's funny when people taste wine, to say that it tastes grape-y is a little inaccurate because it's an obvious observation, but in the sake world when you have a junmai sake, to say that it tastes rice-y is a correct flavor profile. The reason is because it has those four ingredients only [and one of them is rice].

Tamura says—generally speaking—alongside the rice-y taste, the dominant flavors you'll get from junmai is shiitake mushroom, toffee and caramel. You can basically taste the umami of the rice. The acidity in junmai is also higher than ginjo and daiginjo.

Ginjo: For ginjo, you'll get more aromatics—from the smell of a bouquet of flowers, to tropical fruits and even wet rock.

Daiginjo: When it comes to daiginjo, think ginjo flavors, but with more aromatics, more complexities and a lingering finish.

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(Left) Bottle of Akitabare's Shunsetsu ("Spring Snow), and (right) bottle of Hoyo Fine Japanese Sake's Kuro No Hana ("Fair Maiden"). (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)

HOT OR COLD?

While the info below will give you an idea of what general temperature to drink your sake, remember that there are always exceptions to the rules.

Served hot, warm and cold: Junmai and honjozo are the most versatile types of sake in terms of being able to sip them hot, warm and cold. Junmai is the O.G. sake—the most ancient. Before there were refrigerators, if it was summertime you'd probably get a hot or warm sake no matter what you wanted.

Best served cold: Ginjo, junmai ginjo, daiginjo and junmai daiginjo are best sipped cold. This holds true especially for daiginjo, since they're a sweeter sake. If you have a daiginjo at room temperature, the drink becomes too sweet. The colder temperature tightens the sake's flavors to go down the hatch more easily, as opposed to a sugary drink.

SIDE NOTE: UNPASTEURIZED VS. PASTEURIZED

Before we get into the food pairings, there's something else about sake you should know. There's another layer to the beverage: unpasteurized and pasteurized.

Just like wine and beer, when sake is made there are lots of active enzymes inside the bottle. To lengthen the quality of the beverage, the enzymes are put into a hibernation state by resting the sake bottle in two hot water baths (aka pasteurizing the sake). If you don't do this, the enzymes will start reproducing and the flavor of the sake will begin to turn. Don't worry, it's not poisonous or harmful to your body—it just doesn't taste all that great.

If you only put the sake through one hot water bath—this makes the beverage unpasteurized (aka "fresh")—then what you'll be sipping on is sake that will apparently taste as close to you taking a drink right from the spout at the brewery.

Unpasteurized sake is hard to come by in the states, Tamura says. It's difficult to transport fresh sake because in order to keep enzymes in a napping state, the refrigeration temperature has to be consistent from one point to the other. He points out that since sake breweries like Akitabare and Hoyo Fine Japanese Sake are doing just fine in their business, they don't have extra incentives to ship it outside of Japan like that unless they can entrust a company to do it right. Tamura's World Sake Imports is one of those companies.

What is interesting is that Uchigasaki points out that sake generally tastes better in the United States than in Japan because Americans take such painstakingly great lengths to ensure the freshness of the sake is maintained. In a lot of restaurants in Japan, they don't put as much care into the sake, just keeping it in a dark closet and waiting to move the inventory, Tamura says.

While all the sake types technically could be unpasteurized, the junmai category is the one that carries the most of its kind. There is some "fresh" ginjo and daiginjo, but not a ton of them.

The way you can tell if a sake is unpasteurized is that you'll see the Japanese word, "nama" (生) on the bottle.

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Robata Jinya's "oyster of happiness," raw oyster with crab, caviar and a creamy egg sauce. This was paired well with a Sohomare Tokubetsu Junmai. (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)

FOOD PAIRINGS

Junmai: This sake goes well with cold foods with bold flavors because its own strong flavors can withstand the intense tastes of the dishes. For example, at Robata Jinya, we sampled a junmai and paired it with the restaurant's yellowtail sashimi jalapeño topped with a citrus soy sauce, as well as a deep-fried halibut tempura that was topped with shiso leaf and plum. It also is a good match with raw oysters, and cooked foods like oden (Japanese hot pot) or yakitori (chicken skewers). If you so happen to get an unpasteurized sake, like a junmai, it especially complements raw oysters because it cleanses out the oceanic flavors of the shellfish and takes out the fishiness.

Ginjo & Daiginjo: The number one focus on both of these kinds of sake is the aromatics. They're more like sipping beverages, so you can be enveloped by the wafting, luscious fragrances. If you were to pair food with them, it's best to go with lighter dishes. However, both of these do complement food that isn't just Japanese, like French dishes with sauces like beurre blanc or red wine. At Robota, we paired a daiginjo with the restaurant's shrimp toast, which had lightly seasoned shrimp sandwiched between two pieces of crispy, buttered toast, and then dipped into an aioli.

The question on your mind is probably, "What goes best with sushi?" Ginjo especially pairs best with sashimi and sushi, including yellowtail and especially with raw, white-meat fishes like halibut or red snapper. They accompany cold foods that have a light flavor. Roasted meats are also a go-to with this sake, like Robata Jinya's sliced wagyu beef grilled on a lava stone. As for ramen, Tamura says one with a fatty pork broth like tonkotsu pairs perfectly with a ginjo-style sake. But don't bother sipping any other sake with a shio or shoyu ramen. It just won't taste great.

Special Note: If, say, you have a variety of different types of dishes and preferences of sake types, and you only want to get one bottle for the table, go with a daiginjo. It's something everyone would like because it's the cream of the crop for each brewery. "If there are any conflicts with food—perhaps [there will be]—at least the sake's good," Uchigasaki says. If all else fails, entrust your server or sommelier with the best sake to match your dishes.

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Robata Jinya's "shrimp toast" was paired with a Tedorigawa Yamahai Daiginjo. (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)

PRICE RANGE

The more brewers have to polish each grain of rice, the more work they have to do and the more rice they have to use. This reflects upon the prices of the sake, which in general is still kept affordable for the most part.

Each of these average prices below refer to a 720 mL bottle of sake, which equates to almost a bottle of wine.

Junmai: A quality one would cost about $15 to $20.

Ginjo: $24 to $30

Daiginjo: Price can be upwards of a ginjo.

DON'T AGE YOUR BOTTLE OF SAKE

While sake breweries can age their sake before they bottle it, you the consumer shouldn't age your sake. Unlike red or white wine, there are no sake vintages. Once it's bottled, it's ready to drink.

Tamura advises folks to take a look at the bottle and search for a bottling date. Only drink the sake within the year of that date. The longer you age sake, the bolder the flavors turn.

Once you open the bottle, finish it up as soon as possible. But if you must wait, make sure to refrigerate it and kill the bottle within a week-and-a-half to two weeks.

SIP OR SHOTS?

I'm sure the proper adult in all of us is wondering if it's bad form to take a shot of sake. For the artisanal sake, it's not too different from a fine whiskey. It would be more "appropriate and better mannered to think about the sake, sip it and enjoy it," Tamura says.

It's not frowned upon if you're drinking the Michelob Ultra of sake and want to shoot it, though sipping it is just fine, too. Uchigasaki says it best: "If that's what bring you happiness go for it, but how much can you enjoy sake if you don't enjoy it?"

Jean Trinh is a freelance food and entertainment writer, whose work has appeared in VICE, LA Weekly and The Daily Beast. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and on her website.