The versatile Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice can be enjoyed chilled or warm and sipped solo or paired with food. It also makes a stellar low-ABV swap for gin or vodka in cocktails.
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Cold sake with rice and ear of rice on the table
Credit: GETTY IMAGES

If your only experience with sake—Japan's national rice-derived beverage—has involved quickly downing the warm liquid to endure its brashness, you are missing out on the drink's elegant, versatile nature.

"I think sake at its best is complex, multi-layered, and even surprising," says Weston Konishi, the president of the Sake Brewers Association of North America. "When you think of all the different producers making all the different styles of sake, you realize the adventures are endless." Indeed, there's an abundance of options to sip solo, craftily combine for a low-fi cocktail, or pair with a multitude of meals. But first, let's learn a little more about what sake is, how it's made, and how you should best imbibe it.

What Is Sake?

You've probably heard sake referred to as a rice wine—but that's not correct. While it may have similarities to wine in body and alcohol content, it's not a true wine at all. "Sake is an alcoholic beverage brewed in the Japanese tradition using four main ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji mold," says Konishi. "It is often called a 'rice wine,' but that's a misnomer since rice is a grain—not a fruit—and is brewed more like beer."

Milling and Quality

Indeed, at the heart of sake is rice, but not just any old table rice. Special varieties are used for sake brewing; the grains go through a milling process, which is called polishing, to shave down their outer layer and tease out the desired aromas and flavors. Generally speaking, the finer the milling, the higher quality the sake. But how can you tell what level of milling your sake has undergone?

"Typically, rice that's more polished without any added alcohol will be more expensive and the quality will be elevated. However, this does not mean that sake that hasn't been polished as much can't be elegant and delicious," says Kira Webster, beverage director at the St. Louis-based Japanese-Southeast Asian restaurant, Indo. That hot sake you've had in the past? That was likely a Futsu/Futsushu sake, which doesn't have any milling requirements. Get past that and explore options like Honjozos and Junmais, which are milled to at least 70 percent of the rice grain's original size. 

Types of Sake to Try

"Honjozos typically have alcohol added to their brewing process, while Junmais do not. Both are light and easy to drink, but Honjozos are typically more fragrant, while Junmais are known for being rustic and full-bodied," says Webster. "Ginjos and Junmai Ginjos are milled to at least 60 percent of the grain's original size. Ginjos will typically have alcohol added to them while junmai ginjos do not. While ginjos are normally pretty fragrant, complex, and fruity, junmai ginjos are more balanced with umami notes, and the fruity flavors will be more pronounced."

Some of the finest in the sake category are Daiginjos and Junmai Daiginjos, which are milled to at least 50 percent of the grain's original size; they are elegant and typically the most expensive. Looking for something a little different? Try Nigori-style sakes. "They're unrefined, meaning that there are still rice solids that haven't been fermented," says Webster. "This gives it a cloudy look, as well as a creamier, soft texture, and light coconut notes."

How Sake Is Made

After the rice is milled to the brewer's desired polishing, it is soaked and steamed (not boiled, like table rice). Then, the koji mold is introduced. Don't panic—it's not a bad mold. It's a necessary good one that's key to breaking down the rice grain's starch, releasing its sugar, and getting it ready to be fermented.

Seasonality

Unlike beer—but similar to wine—sake is made during a specific season: winter. (The rice is grown during spring and summer and harvested in the fall.)

Where Sake Is Made

While Japan is sake's ancestral home, it's now made in many other places. Look for sake from Norway, England, Canada, and the United States, where small, craft sake brewers have been growing in numbers, everywhere from Minneapolis and Texas to New York and the great state of Oregon. There have been some riffs, too: A famed French Champagne master, Regis Camus, started a collaboration, called Heavensake, with several well-respected sake breweries, blending them in the cuvée tradition of the famed sparkling wine.

Brewers have made countless attempts to perfect sake—and along the way, different styles have been cultivated, says Webster. "It is a very versatile category ranging from straightforward and humble to complex and luxurious. There's a style for everyone and for every occasion," she says.

The Best Way to Drink Sake

Should you drink your sake chilled or warm? Let the drink's quality level inform that decision, say our experts. "I try not to be too dogmatic about temperatures. I think you should have it the way you want it," says Konichi. "With that said, a general rule of thumb is that lighter-bodied, fruitier sakes are often better chilled; heavier-bodied, dry sakes are sometimes better heated."

Take into account the time of year and what you're eating, too. "Warm sake is delightful on a cold winter's night, but not so appealing in the dead of summer," says Konishi. "But sake really shines when paired with food and can flex its versatility." 

Cocktails

Cocktails can be a fun way to find even more nuance with this drink. "Sake is an easy plug-and-play for other neutral grain spirits, particularly gin and vodka. It's also a great low-ABV option for cocktails," says Webster.

Webster prefers using sake as a stand-in for gin. "For instance, subbing Konteki's Tears of Dawn Daiginjo sake in an Aviation is super fun and interesting, since you're adding more umami as opposed to herbal qualities from a gin," she says. "The dryness is still present, so the cocktail maintains its overall balance. Sake is definitely more versatile than people realize." 

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