The scene is familiar: You walk into a Japanese restaurant and sit down to peruse the menu. A couple of minutes later, a server comes by and asks if you’d like anything to drink. One look at the sake menu and you feel overwhelmed and decide to play it safe—you order a pint of Asahi.
Trying to decipher a proper sake menu after only ever throwing down sake bombs in college can be a challenge. But by opting for a glass of wine or beer instead of attempting to understand the differences between junmai, ginjo, kimoto, and all the other intimidating Japanese terms, you’re missing out on an entire, extremely worthwhile drink category.
The United States imports more Japanese sake than any other country, yet many Americans are still largely mystified by it.
“Most people don't understand the depth of sake in terms of the variety and styles there are,” says Mohammed Rahman, bar manager at Kata Robata in Houston, TX, where he has curated a list of nearly 40 sakes. The menu is broken down into segments and includes flavor and texture notes in an effort to make it more accessible. “I like the wide range of styles of sake that are able to cater to different styles of cuisine, from light and floral to sweet and fruity, all the way to earthy, nutty and umami.”
A host of misinformation and misconceptions also play into sake’s veil of mystery. For one thing, says Marina Giordano, DWS, and a Wine & Spirits Education Trust-certified sake educator, people often think sake’s alcohol content is much higher than its actual 14 to 16 percent ABV. Giordano also believes that the box it’s put into—a drink to be enjoyed with sushi—holds back the category from wider appreciation.
Giordano also notes that the language barrier is one of the biggest hold-ups people have when ordering sake off a menu: “It’s a little intimidating to look at a menu with these foreign words that you don’t understand what they mean, you can’t figure out what the taste is going to translate into.”
But sake doesn’t have to be an enigma.
Learn the 10 Essential Sake Terms
The first step to understanding a sake menu is to learn some basic terminology. As with wine, understanding common varietal names will help you know what to expect when ordering. Many of the sake variety names indicate the rate of rice milling (the percentage of original rice grain remaining), as well as the flavor and texture you’re likely to get out the sake. It’s not unlike understanding the difference in color, flavor and texture between a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Junmai: Translates to “pure rice.” Premium sake that has no added alcohol.
- Ginjo or Junmai Ginjo: Sake with a minimum milling rate of 60 percent. These sakes have fruity and floral aromas and flavors, like banana and melon.
- Daiginjo or Junmai Daiginjo: Sake with the highest milled rice, minimum of 50 percent. These sakes will be clean and pure in flavor, with fruit and floral aromas and flavors.
- Honjozo or Junmai: Sake with a minimum milling rate of 70 percent. These sakes will have umami, cereal and lactic flavors and aromas.
- Kimoto: Sake that is made using pole ramming to start the fermentation process. These sake will have more umami flavors and complexity.
- Yamahai: Sake made using natural lactic bacteria to start fermentation. This process takes longer to ferment and can add complexity and acidity.
- Namazake: Sake that has not been pasteurized and needs to be refrigerated. These sakes will taste lively and fresh.
- Genshu: Sake that has not been diluted with an addition of water before bottling.
- Nigori: Sake that is roughly filtered, also called “cloudy sake.” The appearance is created by suspended rice particles. Some are dry, some are sweet.
- Kijoshu: “Dessert” sake, made by replacing some of the water added during brewing with already made sake. These sake are always sweet, with earthy, sherry-like aromas.
Start With a Ginjo or Junmai Ginjo
Though understanding basic terminology is helpful, it’s not nearly as effective as tasting. Where to start? The pros have a couple of suggestions: Giordano recommends starting with a ginjo or junmai ginjo sake. “These are going to be milled to a minimum of 60 percent of the original rice grain remaining and the flavor complexes are going to be similar to a light white wine,” she says, adding that, though it can be helpful, she hates to compare sake to wine.
Rahman adds that another good starter sake is nigori, or unfiltered sake, that gets its cloudy appearance from the rice particles suspended within. “It tends to have a milky mouth feel and fruit notes, for individuals looking for something on the sweeter side,” he says.
When in Doubt Order a One-Cup Sake
For the sake novice, being an adventurous taster is the best way to understand what you like. The best way to do that? Canned and single-portion sakes.
Typically better than canned wine, according to Giordano, canned or “one-cup sake” is a great way to get your footing around the different styles and to figure out what you like or don’t like. These smaller portions allow you to understand basic flavor profiles without dropping a wad of cash on a pricier bottle. (It doesn’t hurt that they usually have insanely cute packaging too, or that canning helps sake remain more shelf stable.)
“They’re popular in Japan and have them in convenience stores to grab and take on a train or for dinner at home,” says Giordano, adding that they typically come in junmai and hanjozo—possibly even ginjo—styles.
That said, you can also typically taste sakes by the glass if one-cup sake isn’t available.
If you happen to encounter a particularly daunting sake menu, however, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Like with any other type of drinks list, someone took care to select each bottle on the menu for a particular reason, so not only will they not be annoyed by your questions, they’ll welcome them. Though, if you ask which sake would be best dunked into a glass of beer or downed as a shot, you’ll deserve the glare you’ll likely get from the bartender or server.
Consider What You’re Eating
Once you’re feeling more confident with your sake-ordering skills, then comes the fun part: pairing sake with food—and don’t wait until you’re in the mood for sushi to indulge in a glass of the traditional rice wine. It goes with just about everything. Just remember, one of the best clues to remember when pairing just about anything is to match the weight of the food.
“If you’re having a very heavy dish, you should have a heavier sake, like a junmai or honjozo style or even a yamahai or kimoto,” says Giordano. “If you’re having delicate flavors, like light fish and sashimi or if you have a light veg dish with a light sauce, you might want to have a ginjo or daiginjo style because it’s lighter, fruitier and more floral.”
Giordano’s favorite sake pairings include pasta with tomato sauce and steak.
“There’s a saying in Japanese that sake never fights with food,” says Giordano. “And it really doesn’t.”