A Japanese feast is incomplete without the national drink of Japan, sake. But if you are not a drinker, its taste and use might be a point of curiosity for you. So, without taking much time, let’s get to know everything about Japan’s beloved beverage, sake!
Locally known as nihonshu, sake is a sweet and fruity alcoholic beverage that releases its flavorful taste in both chilled and warm temperatures. It has long been considered the national drink of Japan, and with its increasing popularity around the world, many secrets behind its ancient traditions have slowly come to light.
In Japan, Sake is not only savored for its taste in casual drinking, but it is also an integral part of formal religious ceremonies. It is believed to have been around since the third century BC.
Currently, there is a large variety of sake available in Japan, which is determined by the polishing and fermentation process, amongst other things. Come, let’s take a closer look at this much-famed liquor!
What is Sake?
Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made using fermented rice grains. It is a drink that was produced in Japanese temples and monasteries. Unlike other alcoholic beverages, sake can be served both hot and cold.
For centuries, sake has been brewed using highly polished sake mai rice, water, a mold called Aspergillus oryzae, and yeast. Fine sakes are aged for a year or more, and its alcohol by volume is more potent than most wine.
Most varieties have an alcohol content of between 15% and 20% alcohol. However, strong undiluted sake, called Genshu, might also have an ABV of 20% plus.
In terms of temperature, a simple rule of thumb is that higher-quality’s sake is served slightly chilled, whereas cheaper sake should be warmed up.
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What Does Sake Taste Like?
If you are new to the world of sake, you might be wondering where to begin from. So, let’s check out the flavor profile of sake for a better understanding.
Since sake is prepared from white rice‘s fermentation process, the prominent taste profile of sake is mild, having a sweet and fruity flavor. It is a well-balanced combination of astringent and savory flavor and has a mild aroma that disappears a few minutes after being poured into a glass.
The overall feel of this drink is smooth and light. But like any other alcoholic drink, it leaves a bit of an aftertaste. In taste, sake also has slight notes of umami flavor due to its glutamic acid content offered by its key ingredient, which is koji.
In comparison to other alcoholic beverages, sake tastes slightly like white wine. Sake, when served cold or hot, also tastes different. While cold sake tastes like dry white wine, hot sake has a similar taste profile to that of vodka.
In terms of its aromatic profile, sake releases fruity aromas like that of melon, citrus, banana, apples, and pear. Its sweet fragrances also remind you of the taste of honey, brown sugar, or soy sauce. In contrast, its spicy and nutty aroma can be compared to cinnamon, fenugreek, and cloves.
Fun Facts About Sake
1. Sake is known to be the oldest known spirit in the world. Some say its origins date back to 4800 BC China.
2. In the 19th century, there were over 20,000 sake breweries in Japan. But the number has declined considerably today to what is now just over 1,400 breweries due to war, government restructuring, and the Japanese consumer culture.
3. Sake, as compared to wine, has more similarities with beer as it is made from rice and its brewing process converts starch to alcohol, just the way beer is made.
4. The grading of sake varieties depends on how much of the rice grain is polished away in processing. While the lowest grade of sake has 30 percent or less of its grain polished off, the highest grade polishes off 50 percent of its grain.
5. In comparison to beer or wine, Sake has a higher alcohol content. While the alcohol by volume content of beer is typically between 3 and 9 percent, and of wine is between 9 and 16 percent, sake can have an ABV of 18 to 20 percent.
6. According to Shiari in Birth of Saké, “Yeast plays a critical role in sake’s quality. Because each strain of yeast yields its own distinct characteristics of aroma and taste, brewers must test which yeast is best for their saké.”
7. Pouring sake for yourself is considered to be rude. This drink is poured as an act of bonding as it is used to make a toast at weddings and other celebrations.
Does Sake Taste Like Water?
Sake is an alcoholic beverage that releases its flavorful taste in both chilled and warm temperatures and a fruity aroma. It doesn’t taste like water but is often compared with white wine because they are both dry, smooth beverages.
Is Sake Sweet Or Sour?
The national drink of Japan is a type of Japanese wine made of clean water, high-quality rice, yeast, and koji mold. These ingredients are mixed and fermented enough to derive what we know as sake. The taste of sake is clean and sweet. However, its savory flavor provides an astringent feeling. Hence, it’s safe to say that the taste profile of sake is well balanced between savoriness, bitterness, acidity, and sweetness.
Does Sake Taste Like Soy Sauce?
It’s natural to think that sake and soy sauce may taste similar since both use a special mold called Koji as the active ingredient in fermentation. But the main ingredients of sake and soy sauce are fundamentally different, and they lend different taste profiles. While sake comes from rice, soy sauce is made from soybeans.
Why Does Sake Taste Like Banana?
Yeast plays the main role in the formation of sake that is responsible for its aromatic profile. The specially developed highly aromatic sake yeasts produce a typical aroma of tropical fruits like banana, pineapple or melon, green apple or pear, and even bubblegum and aniseed while developing only little acidity. This is why sake tastes like bananas.
Is Sake Better Hot Or Cold?
One of the questions that sake sommeliers answer a lot is the temperature at which sake should be served. Traditionally, sake was always served hot in Japan since warming suited it back then. And for the first-timers of sake, this has been a fascinating aspect. But things changed, thanks to the upgraded brewing technology.
By shifting from wooden tanks to glass bottles for sake storage, the taste profile of sake improved as it no longer took on a woody flavor and aroma from its storage container. And thus, it began being served below room temperature.
To answer this question, much of today’s sake is still served warm or hot because heating helps to mask the unpleasant flavor aspects of this drink, especially in the case of the cheaper varieties such as futsushu (regular sake). However, premium sake, with its more delicate character and subtle aroma, is best served cold.
Unlike wines and beers, sake is a versatile beverage that can be appreciated in many ways.
What Alcohol Does Sake Taste Like?
Sake has a very interesting taste profile that often makes sake lovers draw a comparison between Japan’s most savored drink with other alcohols. While sake has its own unique flavor, to some extent, its flavor is similar to white wine since they are both smooth and dry beverages.
However, the temperature of sake also plays a major role in sake’s taste profile. While cold sake may taste like a flavorful dry white wine, hot sake may taste like vodka. This is because hot sake has a thicker texture and heavier savoriness.
Does Sake Taste Like Beer?
Sake doesn’t fall into the wine or beer categories. If you go by the way it is brewed, it has closer affinities to beer. Sake follows the same beer-brewing steps where grains are processed to make sugar from starch. While the process of beer-making involves two steps — converting starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol — in sake, the two changes happen together. However, sake doesn’t taste like beer.
Does Sake Taste Like Vodka?
The average alcohol content in vodka is 40%, whereas most varieties of sake have an alcohol content of between 15% and 20% alcohol. Having said that, in comparison to sake’s hot and cold serving styles, hot sake may taste similar to vodka due to its savory flavor and thick texture. You can feel the alcohol going straight to your head.
Why Does Sake Taste So Bad?
With a rich history, sake is one of the most unique and versatile alcoholic beverages in the world. But you have to choose the best one suited for your palate to savor its taste. Sake comes with a sugar-to-acid level known as the Sake Meter Value or SMV. In Japanese, the SMV is called ‘nihonshu-do.’ A low SMV of -2 indicates a sweet sake drink. On the other hand, a +5 SMV would be a dry sake.
So, if you feel your sake tastes bad, you’ll probably have to try out different levels of sake SMV to find something you can enjoy.
Factors Affecting The Taste Of Sake
It’s common knowledge that every edible item has a distinct taste profile that makes its taste unique from the other. This results from its place of origin, the process it undergoes, and many other external factors. Just like that, the flavor elements of sake depend upon certain factors like ingredients, brewing methods, after-care, or post-brewing handling methods. Let’s take a look at them.
Sake is made using rice, water, koji, and yeast. Hence, the quality of the ingredients has a major role to play in the taste of sake.
1. Rice – There are about 400 types of short grain rice grown in Japan, out of which about 100 of them fall in the sake rice types. While not all such rice types are distinctive in their flavor profile, many are.
Some rice varieties provide sake a fullness in its texture, while the others affect specific flavors like sweetness or characters like acidity. Some lead to broader mouthfeel while the others provide lightness.
2. Yeast – The taste and aroma of any edible item go hand in hand. And yeast plays an important role in affecting the aroma of sake along with its acidity and alcohol. But more than anything else, just like rice, it’s the choice of yeast that affects sake aromas.
Do you smell melon, banana, apple, and licorice? All these aromas are the gift of yeast at play.
3. Koji– Koji in sake has an equal role to play, like rice and yeast in sake. To simply say, the process of making Koji has a direct effect on how sweet or dry the sake will turn out to be. Koji provides the essential sweetness and umami taste profile to sake. Hence, its quality is a major determining factor for the taste of sake, in addition to the dryness it provides.
While the quality of ingredients makes for the highest contributing factor to the taste a sake will deliver, another factor makes a major difference during production.
4. Water– Last but the least, the mineral content of the water also affects the overall mouth feel. Soft and hard ward varieties deliver a different mouthfeel altogether. Hence soft water provides a softer and more absorbing mouth feel, whereas hard water often leads to a fuller mouthfeel with a quicker finish.
5. Polishing– we read about how the choice of rice has a direct relation to the flavor of sake, but the story doesn’t end there. Polishing levels of rice are the biggest factor that makes or breaks the taste of sake.
Rice kernels undergo several procedures to expose the starch content of rice. So, if you are looking for high-quality and sweeter tasting sake, you need to pick sake that has a higher polished percentage of rice.
Different Types Of Sake
With the above understanding of the key elements of sake, it will become easier for you to see the differences between the various types of sake. Although there are a wide variety of sake available in the market, to keep it simple, we will look at the six basic types of sake that require a different brewing method.
- Ginjo or Junmai Ginjo
- Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo
If you are looking for the purest form of sake, then Junmai is the one for one. Junmai refers to rice in the purest form, meaning that Junmai sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast, and koji without any additives such as alcohol or sugar. Therefore, brands label it as “pure rice sakes.”
Brewers typically use around 70% of the full rice kernel in this variety of sake, making Junmai taste richer and fuller-bodied with an intense, subtly acidic, and umami flavor.
Although it can be enjoyed ice-cold, Junmai tastes best at room temperature or even warm as its acidity mellows down and brings out its richness. Given its taste profile, Junmai pairs well with meats like pork and ribeye steak, along with umami veggies like mushrooms, asparagus, and artichokes.
2. Ginjo or Junmai Ginjo
Ginjo sake is made using highly polished rice and particular kinds of yeast that are cultured to be more expressive and fragrant than others found in different sake grades.
In addition, this sake undergoes low-temperature fermentation across a long period of time, giving this variety a delicate and fruitier taste than other Junmai sakes. It can be served at room temperature or chilled and is a match made in heaven for classic Japanese sushi and sashimi.
It also goes very well with international food items like burritos, tandoori meats, tajine frittatas, cheese plates, wraps, shrimp, tofu, and German spätzle. Its fruity taste works well with salads, too, such as Caesar, chicken, and tuna.
Honjozo is another variety of sake having a deeper taste and aroma. It also uses rice that has been polished upto 70 percent. However, honjozo has a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol to smooth out the flavor and aroma of the sake.
Honjozo sakes can be enjoyed both warm or chilled. Its earthy and acidic palette makes it go well with grilled meats, steaks, chicken breasts, as well as grilled or sauteed veggies and kebabs.
Junmai Daiginjo is a super-premium sake that has been polished to at least 60 percent. It is brewed using special yeast and fermentation techniques that give out a light, fruity, and complex taste, which is quite fragrant. It’s often served chilled and makes a great pairing with popular Asian foods like dim sum and mild pad Thai.
Sometimes referred to as a table sake, Futsushu sake is made with rice that has barely been polished. Its taste profile is not as nuanced as the above-mentioned varieties, and you can get it at cheaper rates.
While all sake undergoes a pressing step, some have the fermented rice mash run through a filter. While most sakes eliminate all the rice residue, Nigori sake is passed through a coarse filter that allows undissolved rice kernels to make their way into the final product. Hence, out of all the varieties, Nigori sake is easily identifiable due to its milky white color.
Nigori sake is typically sweet and creamy. It can be savored cold instead of warm.
Although sake is usually allowed to mature for around six months or more for its flavors to mellow out, shiboritate sake is one variety that goes directly into the bottles from the presses and out for sale. It tends to be wild and fruity in taste. That’s why some people like it as an option for white wine.
What Is The Right Way To Drink Sake?
Now comes the fun part of drinking the sake! For all the beginners out there, drinking the wonderful sake calls for some rules to experience it the best way. Let’s take a look at them:
- When having sake, it’s best to cleanse your palate by eating something beforehand. This saves your mouth from being overly sensitive to the strong flavors of sake. You can try having some boiled rice or noodles or sushi or sashimi.
- The minute you open a bottle of sake, it releases its aromatic profiles. Just as we do with wine, try sniffing the sake before pouring into your glass and swirling it around.
- Take a few sips, and don’t gulp it down. Allow your mouth to absorb the flavors of the sake. If you rush through the sake, you’ll notice only the stronger taste profile.
But that’s not all. The temperature and the kind of receptacle also define the taste sake delivers.
As you have read above, there are no hard and fast rules about how to consume sake. However, it’s always good to know what temperature pairs well with what kinds of food to savor its optimum flavor. That being said, there are some guidelines to help you choose the right temperature for sake consumption.
- It’s best to ask your restaurant server or shop staff for their recommendation of the right temperature for drinking sake. The temperature at which a particular variety of sake is served plays a major role in the taste profile.
- Avoid extreme cooling or warming since extreme temperatures can easily disrupt a sake’s particular flavors and aromas.
- If you wish to have warm sake, don’t heat the sake directly. Rather, pour it into a heat-resistant receptacle and avoid heating it too intensely. Sake should definitely not be microwaved.
Receptacle to Use For Sake : While many connoisseurs recommend drinking sake out of a glass, it’s best to invest in a sake drinking set that includes an ochoko or masu.
Do You Sip Or Take Shots Of Sake?
Regardless of its temperature, we never take shots of sake. Sake is a ceremonial sipping drink that has been refined for several hundred years. So, if you plan to take a shot of sake, you’d completely ruin the flavor of the drink. The best way to savor sake is to serve it in a small drinking cup and sip it like a fine wine to enjoy its flavor.
How To Serve Sake The Right Way?
- If you’re drinking sake with your friends, never serve yourself first. In Japanese culture, it’s customary for diners to pour for one another.
- When someone is pouring your sake, lift your cup toward them slightly.
- Don’t forget to return the favor as, at best, you’ll look like a novice, or at worst, you may appear rude.
- Once everyone has been served, it’s customary for everyone to raise their sake cups for a toast.
- While making a toast, say the traditional word used for saying ‘cheers’ in Japanese is ‘Kanpai.’ Say it while gently touching the sake cups together before taking your first sip.
7 Best Tasting Sake Pairings
If you thought of enjoying a bottle of sake only with sushi, think again. Sake pairs well with almost any food. These include:
- Seafood – Salmon, tuna, shrimp, scallops, and octopus
- Vegetables – Cabbage, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, and cauliflower
- Rice Dishes – Fried rice, stir fry, and Japanese-style omelets
- Pork Dishes – Grilled meat and stewed meat
- Chicken Dishes – Chicken breast, roasted chicken, and fried chicken
- Beef Dishes – Beef steak, hamburger, and ground beef
- Other Meat Pairings With Sake – Lamb, turkey, duck, goose, rabbit, venison, and buffalo
In addition to the above-mentioned food items, sake also pairs beautifully with pizza, cheese, chocolates, spicy Thai food, and barbeque.
Various Uses Of Sake In Cooking
Apart from being savored as a drink with your meals or by itself, sake can be enjoyed in cooking too. While you can opt to use regular cheap sake for cooking, premium Japanese sake would also enhance the flavor by adding a subtle umami taste to different foods. Take a look at the uses of sake in cooking:
1.You can use sake to marinate fish or meat. It not only adds flavor but also eliminates the foul seafood odors.
2. Sake can also be used to make flavorful bread and baked goods.
3. When used in the batter for foods fried, sake can help them provide a better crunch.
4. Sake also makes a flavorful ingredient for marinades, soups, stews, and sauces.
5. When used while cooking rice, sake makes rice more flavorful.
6. Sake also brings out profound flavors in stir-fries to balance the flavor of soy sauce and garlic.
What Is The Best Way To Store Sake For Best Taste?
Sake is a delicate drink with no added preservatives, which makes it vulnerable to change in response to factors such as light, temperature, or exposure to air. Hence, two things should be followed to preserve the taste of sake.
1. Do not store sake in a place where the temperature fluctuates. It is always better to store sake in a cool place.
2. Sake is best kept in a dark place. Do not store sake in direct sunlight.
That being said, the refrigerator is the best place of storage for sake. It should be kept at a temperature of approximately 41 °F. In addition, sake should be consumed within about one year from the date the brewery releases it.
While buying sake, you will observe it is generally stored in a green or brown colored bottle as it is a very delicate, sensitive product. Being vulnerable to factors such as light, temperature, or exposure to air, these two colors help in fighting the effects of sunlight.
Health Benefits Of Sake
One may think, how can an alcoholic drink provide health benefits? But well, sake is one variety that does boost many health benefits.
1. Reduces Risk Of Diseases
Sake is a Nutraceutical beverage that contains compounds known to help protect against heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, it also contains compounds to fight or prevent other diseases.
When consumed moderately, sake prevents cardiac disease and cerebrovascular disease by preventing blood clots and reducing cholesterol. According to a survey by the National Cancer Center in Japan, everyday Sake drinkers have less cancer risk than non-Sake drinkers. That’s because of the amino acid found in Sake.
According to Dr. Okuda, an insulin-like activator found in Namazake, prevents diabetes. Sake has been found to have three types of peptides that help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Along with the above-mentioned benefits, the amino acids and Koji in Sake help recover and build skeletal muscle, thus preventing osteoporosis.
2. Digestive Aid
Sake also prevents digestive problems. Sake may contain lactobacillus, a lactic acid bacterium, which is a probiotic that can help with diarrhea or other digestive problems.
3. Anti-Aging and Weight Loss
Sake also helps with skin related benefits. It contains antioxidants called Ferulic acids that can possibly have an anti-aging effect. It also has far more moisturizing elements such as glycerol, glycerin, and amino acids than other alcoholic beverages. Adding Sake to your bath can result in moisturized skin.
In addition to its anti-aging benefits, sake helps prevent allergies. You can apply sake to your body or drink it. Some researchers report that atopic eczema can be relieved by applying Sake to the affected part. It provides a moisturizing effect of.
Sake and Koji contain five types of substances that inhibit the enzyme called Cathepsin. Thus, moderate intake of Sake may prevent allergies to pollen and food.
Furthermore, sake is packed with substances that inhibit the absorption of starch and promote protein that may prevent overweight if sake is consumed moderately.
The Nutritional Content Of Sake
Typically made from rice, sake possesses vital nutrients and is a great source of amino acids that help maintain health. It has low-calorie content, assists digestion, and prevents diabetes and osteoporosis.
Among its other qualities, sake helps reduce blood pressure, promotes blood circulation, reduces cholesterol, and lowers gastritis and ulcers.
|Nutrients||Amount One Serving Of Sake (100 grams)|
After reading about its characteristics, I’m sure you would agree that sake makes for a wonderful drink. It not only comes with a great taste but is packed with several health benefits.
To know more about sake’s fermentation process, you can visit some of the breweries that offer tours of their facilities in Japan. Note that sake production is seasonal, and most of the action takes place in winter.
Frequently Answered Questions (FAQs)
What type of alcohol is in sake?
Sake is a type of brewed alcohol made out of fermented rice.
Is sake a beer or wine?
Sake is not a wine, a beer, or a spirit. It’s a beverage category in itself.
Can sake get you drunk?
Most sakes’ are about half as strong as most whiskeys and vodkas, contrary to popular belief. It depends on individual consumption and alcohol tolerance.
Is sake better hot or cold?
Sake is best served cold.
Is sake the healthiest alcohol?
Sake is considered to be one of the healthiest beverages in the world.
What is the alcohol content in sake?
Sake contains about 14 to 16 percent alcohol.