beginners guide to sake

日本酒: A beginner’s guide to sake

When I announced that I was about to undertake a WSET L3 qualification in Sake, the majority of responses were along the lines of:

 “Huh? Sah-what?”


“Oh, is that the Chinese rice wine?”

I’ll be honest, two weeks ago, the most I knew about this elusive drink was that it came from Japan, that it was made from rice, and it was quickly growing in popularity on the London drinks scene. Now that I’m halfway through my course, fluent in several kanji, I can start to share a bit of insight. Here is my beginner’s guide to sake:

What is Sake?

It is a fermented drink – that is actually made much more akin to beer than wine. By law it can be made only up to 22% abv.

Where does it come from?

It can be made anywhere, but historically it comes from Japan where they still dominate production.

What is it made from?

It is made from rice grains, koji (a friendly kind of mould), water and sometimes distilled alcohol can be added too.

What does it taste like?

The styles of sake are as varied as you can find with wines. The spectrum begins at delicate, fruity and floral examples and runs through to rich, full bodied styles that are filled with savoury, umami flavours such as soy sauce, mushroom and meat. Most, but not all will have cereal undertones too such as rice flour or bran.

Which style of sake should I choose?

In Japan the term “sake” just means alcohol – you could be referring to beer, spirits or wine. If you are specifically referring to the drink made from rice you must specify “Nihonshu” (日本酒).

Styles of sake are determined by how much you polish the grains of rice… Don’t worry, this is done by machine, not by hand!

You can get sake which is made from rice which isn’t polished much – these tend to be the more rustic styles such as Futsushu.

Premium sakes will generally be polished to within a certain percentage – what you need to know is the more polished styles such as (Junmai) Ginjo and (Junmai) Daiginjo will taste more elegant, floral and fruity. Those less polished styles such as Honjozo tend to be more full bodied.

What temperature should sake be served at?

That’s up to you, but the general rule is that the more rustic styles of sake are often enjoyed warm, while the premium styles are better when lightly chilled. If you warm up the more premium, delicate Ginjo styles then you will lose their fruity and floral aromas which make up their essence.

Sake is also a very seasonal drink, so you may want to enjoy warm sake in the winter and chilled sake in the summer months.

Why should you try it?

If you don’t like rice then let’s be frank ; this ain’t gonna be the drink for you. But if you want something different to go with your food then sake is an incredibly food friendly drink. Its high level of umami (savoury) flavours allow it to be the perfect partner to lots of foods. Of course, Japanese food would be the natural presumption; however Sake can work well with a huge breadth of cuisine and is particularly spectacular with fish dishes.  

If you’re interested in trying sake then have a great range online.


7 thoughts on “日本酒: A beginner’s guide to sake

    • It really depends on the style, and what you want to get from your drink. Essentially if you want it to taste like the intended style then it is best to drink it within a year of the bottling date. And if it’s unpasturised (nama) then you must drink it within 6 months.

      Certain types of sake can age for decades post bottling, but you have to store it very carefully, and there is no guarantee that the flavours that develop will be palatable to you. For e.g. with age, just like with wine, you lose all the fruit and notes of caramel, nuts and other more weird and wonderful flavours develop too

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