How to Drink Sake (and Why It Should Never Be Hot)
You’ve probably heard someone spout “facts” at all-you-can-eat-sushi night that the real, traditional way to drink sake is hot. You probably shrugged and went along with it, struggling through the ethanol steam wafting into your eyes and trying to keep a straight face though the harsh, burning taste—because what do you know about sake? We’re here to set the record straight. Drinking hot sake is a rookie mistake that leads to a far-from-enjoyable drinking experience. For an explanation why, as well as guidance on how to actually drink sake the right way, we tapped Nes Rueda, certified sake professional and managing director for new premium sake brand Heavensake.
The history of drinking sake in Japan goes back generations, but it didn’t hit the United States as a cultural craze until the 1970s. “There was a surplus of rice in Japan, which led to a lot of lesser quality table sake,” Rueda says. “The reason for having the sake warm was to mask the impurities of this sake. That’s how we got introduced to sake as Americans, when restaurants were serving this low quality sake and making it hot to mellow out its harshness.”
A good sake doesn’t need heat to be palatable, and warming it can actually ruin the flavor. “In the higher-quality sakes, they take a grain of rice and polish it away,” Rueda says. “The more polished the rice is, the higher grade the sake is. For example, a Junmai Ginjo polishes away 30 to 49 percent of the rice. When you polish the grain, you get to the heart of the rice, which is where you get these nice aromatics and flavor profiles.”
Junmai also means “pure” in Japanese, which means there are no additives in the brewing process, resulting in a clean taste. Rueda says that Heavensake master blender Régis Camus describes the smell of their Junmai Ginjo like “the first day of spring,” while their Junmai Daiginjo smells like “walking into a flower shop.” “The Junmai Ginjo has notes of melon and green apple, and the Daiginjo is heavier on the mouthfeel with rich, creamy flavors,” Rueda says. “If you heat up a sake, it intensifies the alcohol flavor and masks the natural, beautiful taste and aroma; the delicate flavor profiles disappear—you just taste alcohol.” Now that you’ve hopefully been convinced to do away with hot sake, here are Rueda’s tips on drinking (chilled) sake correctly:
Drink It From a Wine Glass
Despite the misconception that sake is a rice wine (it’s not), you should still drink sake the same way you would a nice Pinot Grigio. “We recommend sake be served chilled in a white wine glass so you really get those aromatics. You can get your nose right in there,” Rueda says. “Swirl it, smell it and sip it like you would a wine.” This also means skipping those little wooden boxes, called masus, which aren’t—as many people believe—the traditional way of consuming sake. “A masu is technically a measuring tool, like a cup, used to measure rice,” he says. “Drinking sake out of a masu is a bit of a gimmick, and personally I think masus are a bit non-hygienic; it certainly affects the flavor of a really delicate sake.” Thankfully, most nice Japanese restaurants don’t serve sake in masus anymore. But if they do, request a wine glass instead.
Pair It with More Than Just Sushi
The last time you had hot sake was probably at a budget sushi joint, but the drink—hot or chilled—is actually poorly matched for rice-based dishes regardless. “Historically, when the rice dishes came out, the sake went away, so pairing sake with sushi isn’t actually the best idea,” Rueda says. “Sake pairs better with a lot of other food. Heavensake’s Junmai Ginjo pairs really nicely with white fish or chicken, vegetables, and compliments citrus and spice. Our Junmai Daiginjo pairs with richer ingredients like lobster, uni and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I had our Ginjo with some fried chicken the other night, and it blew my mind.”
Store Your Sake Right and Drink It ASAP
“Sake should be stored vertically and refrigerated, not in the freezer,” Rueda says. “It’s meant to be enjoyed young, not stored for ages. Once you open a bottle of sake, though, it’s actually good for way longer than a white wine, about four to six weeks.” But some issues start at the liquor store, where the product may be spoiled before it’s even left the shelves. “If you keep a bottle in the sun, it will start to taste weird,” he says. “So when you’re at a liquor store, sometimes there’s a bottle that’s been sitting on the shelf near the window for two years—that’s going to taste compromised.” Instead, buy sake from an actual sake shop if possible, or a liquor store that keeps their bottles in the fridge. And remember to check the label for a bottling date.
Skip the House Sake and Try Something New
Some people have banned sake from their drinking repertoire after a few bad nights of pairing hot sake with low-grade sushi; Rueda urges people to give the drink another chance. “The experience that most people have had in the U.S. is with American sake, which is very different from Japanese sake in quality because of the rice and water,” Rueda says. “And a liquor store can be intimidating because many of the bottles are in Kanji, the Japanese alphabet.” So if you’re a sake newbie, try going to a restaurant with a curated sake menu, and let your server guide you through ordering. “Ask what goes well with the food you’re having, say what flavor profiles you like—dry, refreshing, sweet, aromatic, funky,” he says. “The experience is going to be far different than anything you’ve had before.”