Basics: How to Drink Sake, According to Pros
Back when George Padilla worked at a wine store, staff held a party at a BYOB Jamaican restaurant. After his co-workers showed off the Rieslings and such they’d brought, Padilla distributed ochokos, or earthenware cups, and poured from a Thermos a warm yamahai sake, a structured, umami-driven brew fermented at a high temperature to naturally produce lactic acid.
“It was a lights-out moment,” says Padilla, co-owner of the Brooklyn restaurant Rule of Thirds and the sake shop Bin Bin. The sake’s comforting temperature and underlying sweetness mellowed the spice of the evening’s jerk chicken, while its flavor boosted the meat’s savoriness. The pairing revealed the versatility and power of a beverage we often think of in rigid terms.
Japan’s rice-based brew, say experts, works hot or cold, for fine dining or snacking, in a wine glass or ceramics, and beyond. You just need to learn some guidelines. Then, once you’ve mastered them, you can throw them away.
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Find the Right Food for Your Sake
We usually think of wine when pairing drinks with food, but its acidity and tannins can present challenges that sake does not. Red and white wines contain at least five times more acidity than sake, according to the Sake School of America. “Sake is… less aggressive, so food enhances its flavor,” notes Paul Willenberg of Namazake Paul Imports.
In other words, sake bends to food’s taste more easily than wine. When pairing sake with food, Padilla thinks in terms of intensity.
“How ‘loud’ or ‘soft’ does the food present? Match the sake to that level,” he says. When those “volumes” are in balance, sake’s umami notes act as a bridge between bites. That’s what happens at an izakaya, a style of Japanese tavern that often serves plenty of salty, fermented dishes to keep patrons sipping. The salt, notes Willenberg, increases sake’s texture and binds with its subtle acidity to create more umami flavor, which helps dishes taste good.
Indeed, sake and salt are “best friends,” says Monica Samuels, vice president of sake and spirits for Vine Connections and a Sake Samurai, a title conferred by the Japan Sake Brewers Association. She likes sake with chips, popcorn and bar nuts.
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But different styles of sake do have ideal partners for meals. Heartier foods tend to go with savory junmai, which is made from rice polished to 70% of the grain’s original size. Traditional sakes like kimoto, a style in which the yeast starter is beaten to kickstart lactic fermentation, have the structure to support umami-driven foods. Meanwhile, caramelly and funky koshu, or aged sake, works well with similarly intense aged cheeses, not to mention Thanksgiving’s flavor bomb of gravy-smothered turkey and pumpkin pie.
Nigori sake, which is characterized by rice particles that cloud and sweeten it, tolerates bold flavors and spice a la dishes like Korean fried chicken, birria and vindaloo. As for unpasteurized spring sake, or nama sake, which boasts a thicker texture and brasher aroma relative to other styles, is a match for hefty, creamy pastas, tangy cheeses and grilled meats.
Bright, fragrant ginjo and daiginjo sakes—a k a offerings made with rice polished to 60% or greater—complement lighter, simpler foods that won’t obscure their delicate aromas, like salads and sashimi. As for sparkling sakes, which can range from sweet to bone-dry? Their thicker texture does well with playful pairings like potato chips and caviar.
Hit Your Sake’s Optimum Serving Temperature
“If it’s highly aromatic, serve it chilled,” advises Padilla. “What makes daiginjo special is that the brewer has polished the rice and subjected it to long, low fermentation to coax out aromatic esters.” Heat dissipates the volatile compounds, killing the scent.
Junmai sake, however, grows deeper and more complex at room temperature and beyond. Padilla uses a tent pole analogy: “At cold temperatures, the cloth is sharp at the top. As you blow hot air into the tent, it rises and turns into a dome.” Warmed, the flavors expand. This is on display with sakes styles like yamahai, kimoto and koshu. These are funky thanks to koji, the mold that turns rice’s starches to sugars, and those flavors mellow delectably in a hot water bath or gently microwaved.
“Taste as you heat it and trust your palate,” says Padilla. “When you think it’s delicious, it’s ready.” But sake changes permanently as its volatile compounds off-gas, cautions Willenberg, so heat only as much as you plan to drink immediately. Samuels suggests diluting warm sake with a touch of water to open it up, or dashi, which can also accentuate the drink’s umami notes.
Pour It Into the Proper Vessel
Willenberg drinks daiginjo from a white wine glass, whose high, straight walls direct the sake’s fruity, floral aromas to the nose. He reserves wider red wine glasses for savory sakes. Either way, he suggests handling the glass differently than one would with wine. Rather than holding it by the stem, cradle the bowl in your hands to gently warm it so you can experience it as it evolves.
As for ochokos, “the pottery doesn’t improve the sake’s flavor,” says Willenberg, “but it may improve how you’re feeling.” The cups enhance earthy junmai’s rustic vibe. Different areas of Japan have their own pottery styles, so you can geek out on pairing regional sakes with their corresponding ceramics.
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If you’re going all out with a wine-and-sake affair, consider pouring wine in glass and sake into ochokos. “You should serve both, because they do different things on your palate,” suggests Padilla.
One vessel that experts do reject is the cedar box in which many stateside Japanese restaurants serve an overflowing glass of sake; the drinker is meant to sip the spill from the box. The excess expresses hospitality, but the fragrant wood can mask the sake’s flavor. Cup sake, on the other hand, is a gimmick that works: These low-cost sakes, which come in convenient collectible jars or lightweight cans, are perfect for picnics.
Serve Sake Appropriately and Store It So it Lasts
Even unopened sake changes over time. Purchase it within two years of the bottling date on the label. Then share it as the Japanese do.
“Sake culture is about kizukai, which means being observant to anticipate a fellow drinker’s needs,” explains Samuels. Keep everyone’s glass full, pouring for others before yourself.
“It’s also commonplace to hold the bottle with two hands, as a gesture of gratitude for the product,” notes Willenberg. Traditionally, you’d fill ochoko to the top, but with a wine glass, pour just a couple of ounces, so you can get your nose in and experience the sake’s aromas. And don’t swirl as much as wine, lest the higher abv sake releases too much alcohol into your nose.
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Once it’s opened, refrigerate it. “Sakes are released on the date that the brewer feels they’re ready to drink,” says Willenberg. Re-capped and stored upright in the dark and cold, they’re as good as just-opened for two weeks. High acid, high-umami sakes can stay stable for months.
After that, unlike wine, they won’t turn to vinegar. “But aromas and flavors diminish, especially in a daiginjo,” Samuels notes.
Now, Go Ahead and Break the Rules
Ultimately, these tips are helpful but not mandatory. “I want people to learn to live with sake,” says Padilla. “There are a lot of ways to do that. Find your own comfort with it, so you drink it. That’s what supports the producers.”
In fact, “there’s a push from producers for people to be playful,” says Samuels. Add ice, club soda, orange juice or a slice of jalapeño to spice things up. And you don’t always need proper glassware. Even Samuels’ family has an outside-the-box ritual: “We get dehydrated squid bodies, and we drink hot sake out of them,” she explains. “As you refill the squid, it softens. Then you grill it, and it’s delicious.”
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And though ginjos and daiginjos are best served cold, “don’t rush to put the bottle on ice. Try a spectrum of temperatures to understand your preference,” Samuels advises. Willenberg suggests comparing a couple ounces at 50°F, room temperature and 100°F.
As for how long to keep sakes around after opening them? Fans of aged sake argue that some have the structure to last after opening at room temperature indefinitely. At bars like Asakura or Yoramu, both in Kyoto, yamahai and kimoto sakes can sit open for years. “Do you want to see how a sake evolves with oxygen exposure or keep it locked in place?” asks Padilla. It comes down to your own taste.
That’s how it should be with any drink. Experiment and find your bliss. “People ask, ‘Is that allowed?’” says Samuels. “Yes. We want people not to feel like there are so many rules.”
Published: November 20, 2023