All About Japanese Sake



As much is I love everything Asian, I really didn’t get into exploring world of fine Japanese sake (SAH-keh) until just recently. A little over a year ago, I had a chance to sneak into a meeting with a sake sales representative, Morgan Hartman. Morgan was giving a artisan sake tasting to a local restaurant’s staff, and I kind of tagged along, curious to experience what artisan sake was all about.

The next hour just blew my mind. We sampled eight or nine different brands of sake, the exact number I really can’t remember. While the other is utilized their spit bucket, I couldn’t fathom the thought of wasting a single (hiccup) drop.

Sidenote: You know when wine pros do wine tastings, they don’t really swallow the wine….they take a sip of wine, gurgle around in their mouths, make funny faces and then spit it out. Because if you DON’T swallow and you’re tasting like 10 different wines, by the time you get to number 6, you are so flat-out drunk that everything tastes like pencil lead, cat piss and leather. Honestly, I’m probably not a super-taster nor will I ever be a wine geek, because I just cannot understand which pie-hole they pull out these obscure flavors and aromas from. And really. The only time I really would enjoy tasting leather would be if I was on the back of Fonzie’s motorcycle, holding on tight and trying to reach and kiss the back of his neck. Okay, sorry for the rambling sidenote.

Anyways, the tasting blew my mind. Nine artisan sake from different regions of Japan, each brewed using handcrafted methods and premium ingredients. No chemicals, no sulfites and some utilizing no machinery. Yes, some of the sake were expensive, but the majority of them were surprisingly affordable, about the same as an everyday bottle of wine.

So, these next two weeks, I’ll be posting a lot about Japanese sake – the good stuff that you drink chilled like wine. Not the cheap sake is served hot and goes down burning like a lighter fluid. In fact, after my sake tasting experience, I can’t even drink the hot sake at all. Did you know that the cheap, lesser quality sake is served hot to mask it’s inferior flavors? You’re so distracted by the heat that you can’t even taste a thing. I know that some people love hot sake (I even did a Twitter poll), but I’d like to show you around the world of chilled, artisan sake.

I’ve been studying my ass off the past 2 weeks (I’ve really been loving my late-night “MARKET RESEARCH” sake tasting sessions) and my teacher is none other than that company that Morgan works for, a small company called Vine Connections, based in California, who represents over 20 of Japan’s finest premium sake breweries. These artisan, ancient (the youngest is 86 years old!), and traditional family brewers produce some of the best sake that you’ll ever try. So I’ll be learning from Morgan, Lisa, Ed and Jeffrey, who will be sponsoring a sake section on Steamy Kitchen. They are a great partner, because they represent over 20 different artisan sake brewers, and we’ll be able to give you the basics of premium sake, how to order sake and read the labels, full tasting notes, teach you how to pair sake with food and how to hold your own artisan sake tasting with your friends.


So, what the heck is “premium” sake?

Sake, often called the “Drink of the Gods” by the Japanese, is a beverage produced from sake varietal rices, pure water, koji spores, and specially selected yeasts. Premium sake is brewed like beer, but drinks like fine wine.

Like beer, the starch must be converted to sugar, which then turns into alcohol. Like wine, each brand has its own distinct tasting notes – some sake is woodsy and earthy (pairing well with meats and other full-flavor dishes) and some have flavors of lychees and lemon zest (pairing well with steamed seafood)


What makes a sake a PREMIUM sake? Well, premium Japanese sake is to regular sake what Single Malt Scotch or Agave Tequila is to their cheaper counterpart. Premium Japanese sake brewers are family artisan craftsmen and all their sake are made by hand with little, if any, automation. No cheap rice, no mass-production and certainly no chemical additives.

And one of the great things about premium sake is that it’s gluten-free, sulfite free, and kosher. Premium sake becoming popular, too…enjoying a 20% annual growth rate in the U.S. for the past 5 years. The newest drink that is made with premium sake is sparkling Japanese sake infused with all-natural Asian flavors. It’s served chilled and it’s fantastically fancy served in a champagne glass.


It all begins with the rice.

You know how a grain of rice is pretty darn small? Well imagine polishing (or milling) the rice so much that only the heart of the rice remains. That center heart of the rice grain produces the most clean, pure, fragrant and complex tasting sake!

So, what’s all the other unwainted stuff that you’re polishing off?

  • protein
  • minerals
  • fats
  • amino acids
  • starch
  • other “stuff” (like unwanted rice cling-ons)

While all this stuff we’re polishing off is actually good for you (in terms of EATING rice) it’s bad for the fermentation and taste of sake. So, the more you mill the rice, the cleaner, elegant and refine the sake is. Cheap sake uses the cheap rice and the entire grain. Super-premium sake is made with Yamada Nishiki Rice (a rice variety ESPECIALLY made for sake) that are polished to just 40% of its original size! See the last rice photo, how the rice grain is very white and less than half the size of the table rice?

japanese-sake-rice grades


All these fancy Japanese words! What do they mean?

Think about wine. Instead of merlot, pinot noir or chardonnay, the common words used to differentiate premium sake are:

Junmai (JOON-mai): Junmai is pure rice Sake. Nothing is used in its production except rice, water, yeast, and koji (that magical mold that converts the starch in the rice into fermentable sugars). Junmai is brewed WITHOUT any addition of distilled alcohol. Now why would you add distilled alcohol to sake? Because cheaper, faster. Instead of allowing the rice starch ferment naturally – lower grades of Japanese sake will include added distilled alcohol. Junmai is premium sake with no added distilled alcohol. Generally a bit heavier and fuller in flavor than other types of Sake, with slightly higher acidity. Goes well with a wide range of food. Must have rice grains polished to at least 70%, meaning the outer 30% of each rice grain has been polished away.

Gingo (GEEN-joe): Super premium sake and special practices must be followed to make it, including higher milling rates, the use of special rice and yeast, longer fermentation periods, and many other labor-intensive brewing processes.

Daiginjo (die-GEEN-joe): Even a more painstaking brewing process than Ginjo, which results in Sake that is even lighter and more fragrant and fruity than a typical Ginjo. Must use rice milled to at least 50%. Often, Daiginjo goes as far as using rice milled to 35% (65% of the kernel polished away!).

So you can combine “Junmai” with “Ginjo” and “Daiginjo” == or use the words independently.

japanese-sake-junmai-labels-2862 Junmai (no distilled alcohol added, milled to 70% of grain- i.e. 30% polished away)

japanese-sake-junmai-labels-2865 Junmai Ginjo (no distilled alcohol added, milled to at least 60% of grain)

japanese-sake-junmai-labels-2863 Junmai Daiginjo (the very very best, no distilled alcohol added, milled to at least 50% of grain)


Japanese Sake Grades

Percentages from Sake World

Coming Soon!

Here are other sections that we’ll be covering:

Japanese Sake Grades (this post)

How is Sake Made?

Food and Sake Pairing

How to Read the Labels

How to Serve Sake

Tasting Notes: Living Jewel

Tasting Notes: Divine Droplets Sake

Tasting Notes: Wandering Poet Sake

Tasting Notes: Snow Maiden Sake


$50 Sur La Table Gift Card


My friends at Sur La Table gave me a $50 gift certificate. Originally, I was going to take that gift certificate and give it away to you guys…but the trouble was…I WENT to my local store to pick up the gift certificate.

How could I resist NOT buying a few new goodies for the kitchen?

So I used it.


But never fear, due to my own shortcomings in the willpower department, I am buying a $50 gift certificate to give away.

So – how to enter? Easy. Just comment and tell me ANY QUESTIONS YOU HAVE ABOUT JAPANESE SAKE. If you’re a smart-ass and don’t have any questions, just pretend you do and copy someone else’s. You have until Tuesday, June 16th 12pm EST.


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Comments 658

  1. JOhn

    You know what I love best about sake, it isn’t so much the taste or the fizzle after the first few drinks, it’s the pretty bottles; I have a wall dedicated to just sake bottles. 🙂

  2. JOhn

    For my second comment…
    I was watching an anime the other day with my s.o. and I was interested to learn that truly high quality sake is a lot like wine. The older the damn nectar gets the higher the value of the product is. Supposedly, according to that show and to the research I did a bit afterward, great sake tastes a lot like fruit, some claim that it reminds them of honeydews and cantaloupes. Is it true? I’m often too poor to ever find out. hahaha.

  3. Karen

    That is amazing all that history into sake. I wonder if I can polish my rice that well… Loved the info!

  4. Michelle

    Im a Steamy Kitchen email subscriber

    and despite previous I am super interested in learning more about sake because sometimes, I let it cool off and if the icky stuff is still drinkable, the good stuff must rock

  5. Dena

    What is “pearl sake”? I had it before and it was very good, but I don’t know what makes it different/distinctive. Thanks!

  6. Dena

    I’m a steamy kitchen RSS subscriber – does that count? I’d love an extra contest entry, thanks!

  7. j biesinger

    I had the exact same experience. I was a casual sake drinker until I did a tasting at a wine store. The flavors are so subtle that you don’t really appreciate them until you try a bunch and are amazed at the variety of what they can coax out of rice starch.

  8. Sues

    I had nooo idea that good sake was served cold. Though I do know that I never liked sake until I tried it cold. Hot sake is ugh to me. Do you know what kind of sake would be best with spicy tuna sushi??

  9. Kristen

    I am a smart-ass, but I know nothing about sake. I choose based on how beautiful the label is, isn’t that how everyone does it???

    You have some great info here, but I’ve so many questions and I am a but overwhelmed to come up with a good question. I will though!

  10. Elisabeth

    So, is sake rice ever used for eating? What does it taste like? Also, can one home-brew sake?

  11. Nan

    This was fascinating. I know nothing about sake, so I want to learn more. I also wouldn’t mind that gift card ;-).

  12. Janet

    Could you serve cold sake hot? That sounds stupid, but seeing as how so many people like hot sake, wouldn’t quality chilled sake be even better hot?

  13. Barbarainnc

    I got a bottle once, but never opened it !!! I think it got it for my 30th birthday. That was 23 years ago!!!

  14. Nina

    I hate drinking alcohol but love cooking with it (go figure). What are some of the best ways to use sake in recipes? Do the flavors come off particularly strong?

  15. Lynette

    I’ve never tried sake. What kind would you recommend for someone who’d like to try it, but is still a little leery?

  16. ML

    Every time I try sake at my favorite sushi place, it tastes either like hot or cold rubbing alcohol.

    What’s wrong here?

  17. DeWitt

    I love Sake. I had the opportunity to visit a distillery in San Francisco. Are there any makers that use the old process left in Japan?

  18. cakebrain

    I’ve been to a sake tasting in the past and had fun. I prefer cold sake for sure. Do you have any information or pictures of serving vessels for cold sake? I’ve seen cool glass vessels with glass-blown “bubbles” in the centre of the vessel where you put the ice so it doesn’t dilute the sake. What’s the correct temperature to serve cold sake?

  19. Allison

    I don’t know anything about sake… what brand would you recommend someone like me to try?

  20. sharon

    I once bought some sake that was cloudy when shook up but, separated when still. Why was that?
    It tasted pretty much like the un-cloudy sake.

  21. Jasmine

    where did sake bombing come from?
    also, asian flush – is sake somehow less asian-flush-inducing than other alcoholic beverages?

  22. Pingback: All About Japanese Sake

  23. Allicat

    I love Nigori (unfiltered) sake! It’s not considered the highest quality stuff, but it has this delightful yeasty, subtle fizziness that pairs great with sushi. I’ve seen flavored sakes on the market; are these the sake equivalent of wine coolers, or are they worth taking seriously? (Nothing against wine coolers- who doesn’t like alcoholic Kool-Aid?)

  24. Jess

    I don’t know much about sake, but would love to learn more….can you recommend some reasonably-priced varieties to start with?

  25. Lisa

    I’m commenting to your spam folder again. 😛

    I had sake once.. sooooo many fakking years ago. It was served cold, but it still tasted like lighter fluid. I’ve never tried again. But I never knew there was such a difference in sake. We’ll be headed to our favorite Asian market within the next month, so I’ll be checking to see if they carry the higher end sake!

    Ohh I’m an email subscriber too. 😀


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