You may think of sake as a spirit, like vodka, because of its appearance and its glassware. But unlike vodka, sake falls under the category of fermented beverages like wine and beer. If you like either of the two, you’ll be surprised to find out that you might like sake, too.
Here, you’ll come to understand sake based on its similarities (and differences) with the more common alcoholic fermented beverages—beer and wine. This perspective will let you easily select and enjoy various sake products.
1. Sake is not a Spirit
Japanese sake is a fermented beverage, just like wine and beer. Spirits, on the other hand, are alcoholic beverages that go through an additional process of distillation.
Since distillation concentrates alcohol content, spirits come up to around 40% ABV. Whereas, the undistilled fermented wine, beer, and sake have much lower ABVs (less than 20%).
2. Fermenting Method is similar to Beer
Although wine, beer, and sake are all fermented beverages, they each have inherent differences in their fermenting methods.
During fermentation, sugar is converted to alcohol. Since wine begins with grapes that have naturally-occurring sugars, the conversion occurs in one step. Sake and beer, on the other hand, undergo two steps. As both are starting with grains, starch is first converted to sugar (saccharification), before being converted to alcohol (fermentation).
The fermentation processes of beer and sake have a very small difference. While beer undergoes saccharification and fermentation in succession, sake does so simultaneously- a process called ‘multiple parallel fermentation’.
To know more about production of sake, read From Grains to Glass: How Sake is Made.
3. Alcohol Content is higher than Both
In terms of alcohol percentage, sake is only slightly higher than wine with 16% and 14% ABV, respectively. In spite of the similarities of beer and sake, sake’s parallel fermentation produces sugar that enables yeasts to make more alcohol effectively. Beer, on the other hand, goes up to about only 6% ABV.
This image shows the general alcohol percentage of each beverage:
4. Flavor is closer to Wine
When it comes to flavor, sake is, again, more similar to wine. Sake can be dry, rich, acidic, or sweet. They both come in innumerable flavor varieties, and that’s a wonderful thing about wine and sake.
When choosing a type of sake, we recommend using your wine preferences as a guide. The chart below matches the wine to the type of sake that is most similar to it in terms of taste.
This chart takes into account the general flavor characteristics of sake per category. But please note that even for specific types, the flavors and characteristics can vary by brand and type of product.
All of the the sake types above are easily found in convenient stores or supermarkets across Japan. It is also a good idea to visit sake shops and to ask store clerks to find the best match for you.
Sake with wine yeast
Another important variant to take note of are sake products that use wine yeast. As sake gains global popularity, some breweries have started integrating techniques from the wine industry. This type of sake has a more prominent acidity compared to regular sake, and a more fruit-like aroma.
5. Food pairing is similar to Wine
Many people think that sake can be paired only with Japanese cuisine, but this is not true. Because of its variety in flavor, it goes well with Italian and/or French cuisine, too.
Since sake and wine share similar taste profiles, they also follow the same food-pairing principle: Match Flavors and Textures.
For example, let’s take a look at Camembert cheese, which is commonly enjoyed with wine.
This cheese has a sweet, milky, and rich flavor. Applying the food-pairing principle above, it would go well with rich, full-flavored sake (i.e. Junmai-type). And in fact, this is a well-balanced pair. Junmai supports the mildness of cheese perfectly. Below is Junmai sake produced by Tokyo’s famous sake brand ‘Sawanoi’.
Also, since both Camembert and sake are mold-based, the complexities in their flavors are enhanced and complemented.
The chart below summarizes the similarities between sake and other alcoholic beverages:
Some refer to sake as “rice wine” due to its similarities with wine in flavor, aroma, and food-pairing, as we’ve also now understood. But if referring to fermenting methods, sake resembles that of beer more.
Having these things in mind, you can now choose sake based on the characteristics that you prefer from your wine or beer. Go and ask for recommendations from sake sales staff based on your existing preferences, especially if you’ve never tried sake before. They will gladly accommodate you. Don’t hesitate to try Sake!