Q.What exactly is sake? Is it a beer? A wine? A spirit?

A.While it is easy to say what sake is not–it is definitely not a distilled spirit like vodka or gin–it is a bit harder to say exactly what sake is. Like beer, sake is made from a starchy grain rather than a sugary fruit, and so the fermentation process for both beer and sake starts with the transformation of starch into sugar. However, sake is rarely bubbly, and in appearance and alcohol content, it is more like white wine than beer. Suffice it to say that sake is sake; a delightful fermented beverage in a class of its own.

Q.What is the alcohol content of sake?

A.Most sake contains 14% to 16% alcohol, in contrast to 4% to 6% for beer and 8% to 14% for wine. Freshly-brewed sake naturally contains as much as 20% alcohol when it is pressed from the mash, but before bottling water is added to most types of sake to bring the alcohol level down to about 15%.

Q.Is sake meant to be drunk with food, or alone?

A.The short answer is: yes to both! Good sake is low in acid and high in umami (savoriness), so it goes very well with a wide range of dishes both within and beyond the Japanese food culture. Of course, premium ginjo and super-premium daiginjo sakes are wonderful sipped chilled any time, and a warm cup of standard sake does well on its own to take the chill out of a winter afternoon.

Q.Does sake improve with age, like wine?

A.No. Although there are a few special varieties of sake that are “aged” before bottling to produce a darker, more mature flavor, all sake is meant to be drunk soon after purchase. Many premium sake makers, including Masumi, print the bottling date on the label or cap, and the sake is best drunk within a year of that date. Once opened, sake will begin to oxidize and so it is best to drink it within a week or so.

Q.How should sake be stored?

A.Sake that has been pasteurized should be kept in a cool, dark place until opening, then refrigerated thereafter. Fresh sake, called namazake in Japanese, is not pasteurized and should always be refrigerated. Once opened, sake will begin to oxidize and so it is best to drink it within a week or so.

Q.At what temperature should sake be served?

A.That depends on the type of sake (and perhaps on the season in which you drink it). Earthy sakes with fuller flavors and mild aromas are good candidates for warming, whereas fruity, highly fragrant sakes should be drunk chilled. Generally you’ll find good candidates for warming among the junmai, honjozo, and standard sakes, and good candidates for chilling in the ginjo and daiginjo premium types. Avoid heating sake over 50C, and avoid chilling sake any lower than about 10C.

Q.What kind of glass or cup is appropriate for serving sake?

A.Traditionally, sake was served in small ceramic, clay, or lacquered cups, but these days you’ll find it served in everything from tin to crystal stemware. A good rule of thumb is to select a vessel that fits the type of sake, and its temperature. For example, earthy sakes with mild aromas are good candidates for warming, and warm sake should be served in ceramic or clay cups for obvious reasons. On the other hand, light-bodied sakes with fruity aromas are better chilled, so glass is best. Wine glasses are excellent to fully enjoy this type of sake’s subtle and complex nose.

Q.Is drinking sake better for your health than drinking other alcoholic beverages?

A.Sake contains no sulfites or other preservatives that are said to contribute to hangovers and other health concerns. Naturally, sake should be consumed in moderation and with the same caution as any other alcoholic drink.

Q.How are the keywords DAIGINJO, GINJO, JUNMAI, and HONJOZO used to classify sake?

A.These special terms identify a sake’s grade and type depending on 1) the amount of rice remaining after polishing, and 2) whether distilled alcohol is added before filtering.
1) Polishing (DAIGINJO, GINJO)
Less than 50% remaining = DAIGINJO super premium
60% to 50% remaining = GINJO premium
More than 60% remaining = no special term
Note that the outer layers of the rice contain a lot of protein, fat, and minerals, which can make the sake taste heavy and bitter. Polishing away these layers lightens up the flavor of the sake.
2) Distilled alcohol added or not (JUNMAI, HONJOZO)
Not added = JUNMAI
Small amount added = HONJOZO
Larger amount added = no special term
Note that alcohol is added in limited amounts to enhance the natural aromas of premium sake. It is added in larger amounts to lower the price and stabilize the flavor of standard sake.