Everything You Want to Know About Sake, According to Miss Sake USA

Courtesy of Sakamai

Who would you rather have a drink with: Miss USA or Miss Sake USA? That’s what we thought.

Jessica Joly is not only an international kikisake-shi, or sake sommelier, she is also the winner of the inaugural Miss Sake USA 2016 competition. As sake’s official global ambassador, the leader of the Soul of Sake class series at New York's SakaMai, and the child of a Japanese mother and an American father, Joly is uniquely positioned to help educate this side of the Pacific on the Japanese rice wine. “People have a lot of questions, especially when faced with a menu,” she says. “Ultimately, they want to be able to look at a sake menu and say, ‘This is the style I like.’”

If you find yourself lost every time a sake menu is placed in front of you—or any time you pass the sake section at a liquor store, or see someone drinking sake, or think of the word sake—Joly has the answers to all of your questions. Here, how to drink sake, according to woman who is paid to drink it.

If You Like Whiskey or Full-Bodied Red Wines: Drink Yamahai or Kimoto

“Yamahai or Kimoto are some of the oldest brewing methods for sake,” Joly says. Brewers use traditional techniques, which impart a lot of funky aromatics and bold flavors. “They’re very distinct, with a lot of depth on the nose and on the palate.” Joly recommends that fans of big Cabernets or Barolos try Yamahai or Kimoto, adding, “Sometimes certain styles of Yamahai even work for whisky drinkers.”

If You Like Riesling or Rosé: Drink Namazake

Namazake, which is unpasteurized and must be kept cold, tastes much younger and juicier than a pasteurized sake. “Namazakes tend to be a little bit juicy,” Joly says. “Those maybe match to a nice Riesling or rosé for similar juicy characteristics.”

If You Like Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc: Drink Junmai or Junmai Ginjo

These three styles of sake are crisp and clean like your favorite white wine, Joly says.

If You Like Cocktails: Drink Nigori

Nigoris are recognizable by their cloudy appearance. They contain fine rice particles that fog up the liquid and contribute to a thicker texture. “Nigoris tend to be dense and sweeter,” Joly says. “So I recommend those to somebody who is a cocktail drinker, someone who likes the mouthfeel to be thicker.”

If You Like Cava or Prosecco: Drink Sparkling Sake

Bubbly drinkers have their sake too. Sparkling sake is perfect for the Cava fanatic or Prosecco diehard.

It’s OK to Drink Hot Sake

Joly recognizes that there’s a misconception around hot sake. She explains that most bad experiences with it come at restaurants that serve cheap house sake, sometimes warmed in the microwave. “The best way to warm sake is to take a boiling pot of hot water, and put a little ceramic carafe or aluminum tin in there filled with sake,” she says. “Like double boiling chocolate.”

But Warm Sake Can Be Even Better

“I tell people to take a bottle of sake, start it cold, and then just leave it on the counter. See how the temperature gradually changes the taste,” Joly says. “Sake really opens up anywhere from super cold right out of the fridge, all the way up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a nice, warm temperature for sake.”

“There’s actually a word in Japanese, Kanzamashi,” Joly adds, “which refers to warm sake that has chilled down. That’s something you don’t try with wine because there are set temperatures. But with sake, you can start it warm and enjoy it as it cools down.”

Sake Is Good with More Than Just Sushi

Americans most often encounter sake in sushi restaurants, but there’s no reason to quarantine the rice wine to raw fish. “Pair it with Italian cheese or any cuisine with fermented items,” she suggests. “Thai or Chinese work too because they use a lot of fish sauce, which has a lot of umami characteristics that sake has as well.”

Sake Does Not Automatically Cause Hangovers (in Fact, It Might Be the Opposite)

A lot of people falsely believe sake causes or worsens hangovers, but Joly corrects the mistake, saying that sake is like any other spirit: over-indulge and reap the consequences. Sake is actually less likely than wine to cause problems the next morning thanks to its lack of preservatives. “What differentiates sake from wine is that wine has a lot of preservatives, a lot of sulphites,” Joly says, referring to the sulphur compounds often blamed for wine headaches. “That’s the reason you can age and store wine. But with sake, it’s extremely fresh.”

Sake Cocktails Aren’t Really a Thing

Joly calls sake cocktails … confusing. While some American bars make them because they lack a full hard liquor license or are simply curious about mixing the rice wine with higher proof spirits, that is not the case in Japan. “In Japan, sake cocktails are not a thing,” Joly says.

If You’re Looking for a Starter Bottle, Try Nanbu Bijin

If Miss Sake’s advice has eased your sake stress and you’re interested in diving into the rice wine category, she suggests starting with the recent 2017 champion of the International Wine Challenge (IWC): Nanbu Bijin ($36). “I feel like everyone who has had that sake just says, ‘Wow.’ It’s an outstanding sake,” Joly says. “It’s elegant, aromatic on the nose but with a rounded finish, with notes of pear and tropical fruit. It easily pairs with food, and it’s just a great starting point. And the name means ‘Southern Beauty.’ It’s a beauty in the glass.”

Get Ready for a Whole New World of Sake

Sake breweries are passed down through families, usually to the oldest son. As a large generation of brewers prepares to hand over the reins to their offspring, Joly has high hopes for new experiments and collaborations. “Before there was a very traditional style of brewing sake,” she says, “but now they’re pairing sake with music or they’re doing more international collaborations. For instance, there’s a brewery called Tatenokawa, which last year did a collaboration with the French band Phoenix. Collaborations like that can cater to the American or European markets, and not just the Japanese audience. It’s that next generation approach, making it a trendy spirit. For Japan, that’s very new.”

And, like distilleries in America, sake breweries are becoming more and more female. “Since becoming Miss Sake USA, I’ve noticed more and more women interested in sake,” Joly says. “They’re getting educated and working in the industry. Before it was almost a faux pas for women to work in the breweries. They had to be on the outside. I see way more women in the younger generation.”