You may wonder what is the best way to drink and enjoy authentic sake. Drinking sake is both an art and a technique.
You need tohave these three things in mind for a pleasurable sake experience.
1. Check: Color, Aroma and then Taste
It’s a great idea to try ‘sake tasting’ as you would with wine. Sake is a product of a series of detailed processes, so its profile becomes delicate and fine. Check for its quality and basic profile by smelling it from the cup or glass, examining its color, and tasting it. You would be surprised with the differences of each sake product.
Do you see the color of sake in the cup? Notice the transparent, faint yellow, or amber color of the liquid. These are signs of superior quality.
The original color of sake is yellow, and through a series of filtration, it loses its color. But making it completely transparent may loose some of its flavors, so a lot of sake producers keep it a faint yellow or amber.
To check color and clarity, place the sake-filled glass on a white background like a table napkin. This Japanese sake cup with blue circles at the bottom are used by professionals to detect dim colors.
Sake with deteriorated quality becomes lusterless brown. This happens when it’s exposed to light or stored at high temperatures for a long time. Unless they’re Nigori or unfiltered sake, or aged sake, most sake varieties should be clear.
For every sip, always remember that the aroma of sake is perceived in three ways:
- Before sipping (orthonasal aroma)
Place the cup before your nose and gently sniff the sake. If you use a stemware, swirl it to release its aroma.
- Holding the sake in your mouth
Mix the sake with the air through your mouth, spread it to your tongue, and slowly exhale through your nose.
- After swallowing (retronasal aroma)
As you swallow the sake, the aroma will reach the nose through your mouth, or what is called retronasal aroma.
You may perceive a different aroma as the sake transitions. If the sake has an overall uniform impression, it is well-balanced and considered superior.
Below are some examples of sake aroma:
Fruits: Apple, Banana, Melon, White peach, Pear, Citrus
Herbs and Spices: Mint, Cinnamon, Jasmine
Grains: Rice, other cereals
Others: Nuts, Grass, Caramel, Honey, Yoghurt, Earthiness
Sake that is deteriorated, contaminated, low in quality would smell rancid or have other unfavorable aromas like plastic.
Together with aroma, a well-balanced taste profile would make you appreciate sake more. For a better tasting experience. The taste of sake is a combination of any of the following.
Although there’s no ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ way of sake tasting, remember some tips above and you’ll surely discover the taste that suits your palate.
To Heat or To Cool? Your Choice
Among the best things about sake is that it can be enjoyed hot or cold. Manufacturers usually put the recommended temperature for their sake on the label. If indicated, follow that.
If you see Japanese characters on the sake bottle, don’t worry. We made a quick reference below to guide you on their meanings:
To heat sake to the recommended temperature, follow the steps below:
- Fill a decanter made with metal, heatproof glass, or pottery with sake (80-90% full).
- In a pot, add water up to half the height of the decanter and boil.
- Turn off the heat and slowly add the sake into the hot water.
- Measure the temperature using a thermometer. Maintain sake below 130℉ (55℃), otherwise the delicate aroma and taste will be difficult to perceive.
You can also use a microwave. Heat 180 mL of sake for 40 seconds on 500-600 W, which raises its temperature to about 95 ℉ (35 ℃). But because this heats sake unevenly, we generally don’t recommend this method.
To learn more about heating read our article “The Beginner’s Guide to Heating Sake at Home”
<what if there’s no recommended temperature on the label?>
We recommend drinking sake cold first, and then trying warmer temperatures.
- Chilled (50℉ / 10℃)
Keep the sake bottle in a refrigerator for an hour, or soak the bottle in a bucket of ice water for a while. At this temperature, sake has a subtle aroma and a delicate taste.
- Room Temperature (68℉ / 20℃)
Take a chilled sake out of the refrigerator, and let it stand at room temperature. At 20℃, the sake gives off a mild aroma and taste.
- Warm (104 – 113℉ / 40 – 45℃)
Follow the previous instructions on heating sake. At this temperature, sake has a flourishing aroma and a profound taste. As the balance of flavors changes, the character of the drink changes as well.
While drinking warm sake, its temperature will slowly decrease. Don’t worry, as lukewarm sake will show you a different facet of this drink. It’s still aromatic and the taste becomes very mild and soft.
NOTE: In general, we DO NOT recommend heating Daiginjo and Nama Zake (fresh sake) because their fruity aroma and freshness may be lost. Some types of sake are good taken hot while others are not.
If you have heated some sake and found that it is not to your liking, keep the rest and enjoy at your preferred temperature.
3. Find its Best Food Pairing
Like wine, sake pairs very well with food. If paired correctly, sake can enhance the flavor of the food, strike a balanced taste, or even create an entirely new taste altogether. More importantly, sake cleanses and refreshes the palate after a flavorful meal.
Although it’s been a habit to pair sake with Japanese cuisine like sushi or sashimi, you don’t need to limit yourself with these common choices. Try exploring a variety of pairings from different cuisines.
For example, the three-star French restaurant Guy Savoy (https://www.guysavoy.com/en/) put sake on its list. In central New York, Empire Steak House also lists sake (http://www.empiresteakhousenyc.com/#top). The number of non-Japanese restaurants that use sake is rapidly increasing.
Regardless of cuisine, the basic pairing principle stays the same.
Sake that has;
Strong aroma and flavor (e.g. Aged sake, Junmai, Honjozo):
Pair with thick, strong, and/or distinct-tasting food.
e.g. cheese, spicy dish, chocolate
Mild aroma and strong flavor (e.g. Junmai, Honjozo):
pair with thick-tasting food.
e.g. potato salad, pizza, gratin, pork, tuna steak.
Strong aroma and mild flavor (e.g. Ginjo, Daiginjo):
pair with bland-tasting food with a bit of sourness.
e.g. caprese, sashimi, scallops, crab, white fish, fruit.
Mild aroma and flavor (e.g. Nama (‘fresh’), low alcohol sake):
pair with bland-tasting or light food.
e.g. vegetable salad, sashimi, oyster
As in sake tasting, feel free to find the food that best matches each sake type.
Final Tip to a more enjoyable Sake
Finally, we recommend that you drink the same amount of water and sake. Experts say, drinking sparkling water softens the alcohol, and makes you feel more sensitive to its taste until you finish.
Remember, the best way to drink Japanese sake is how you’d best enjoy it! Don’t be afraid to experiment and find out what you like to have the best sake experience. ☺