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Sake: Totally Explained By the Pros at Vegas' Shibuya Restaurant

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Courtesy of MGM Grand Resorts International

What IS sake? Is it a spirit? Is it a wine? A beer? Well -- good question. Incorrectly referred to as a fortified rice wine because of its taste and texture, sake is actually made of fermented rice, not unlike beer... but think of sake as being in a league all its own. It's important to note, however, that unlike beer, sake typically has a 16% alcohol content. And just like there are different subsets of beer and wine, there are different types of sake. Each distinct variety is classified by the percentage of the rice milled away and how much of the grain remains to ferment. 

We learned that and a whole lot more from the experts at Las Vegas's Shibuya at MGM Grand. Named for the Tokyo shopping district, this 11-year fixture of the Vegas Strip has over 125 sakes and the necessary expertise to help you make the most of them. We sat down with their sommelier Emily Vu as well as MGM Grand's Wine Manager Bruno Bonnet to get the skinny on ordering like someone in the know. (Aside: while sake and wine are by no means the same, as we mentioned above, the skills required to manage selections and make recommendations nicely overlap).

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You're probably not drinking or pronouncing it right

Our American nasal accent is beautiful in its own horrible way, but it's "saw-kay" not "saaaaaaahh-key". Second, premium sake is meant to be served cold. Hot sake happens for one of two reasons: 1) it's a cold night on Mount Fuji or 2) to hide the imperfections of a cheap brew.

With those basic misconceptions out of the way, Bruno and Emily boiled it down to five need-to-know terms that will give you a baseline for interpreting a sake list.

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Ginjo sakes are the Pinot Noir of sake -- they go with everything

These are the most crowd-pleasing sakes -- flexible enough to pair well with most any food and a perfect fit for anyone looking to step up from cheap, hot sake to take a seat at the grown-ups table. About 40% of the rice kernel is milled away in the process of fermenting a ginjo.

Daiginjo sakes are the highest order of premium sake

Bruno says Daiginjo are the sort of sakes you enjoy with both your mouth and your mind. The best way to describe the difference between Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes is to look briefly at the rice. The heart of the grain is the part you want, and where ginjos see 40% or so of the original grain milled away before brewing, daiginjos run the gamut from a minimum of 50% all the way to the high 90s, leaving only the best of the best parts. 


Sakes described as Junmai are pure

This is a big one. Junmai is basically a statement of purity, which means that no additional sugars, starches, or most importantly, alcohol, were added during the brewing process. Both ginjo and daiginjo sakes can be classified as Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo sakes, which are the most premium you can try.

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There is raw, fresh sake

Regular sake is usually pasteurized twice in order to maintain its quality and prevent it from deteriorating due to bacteria. But Namazake is unpasteurized -- leaving more of the fresh, robust flavors intact in the final product, and must be stored cold and imbibed within two weeks of opening. Any of the sakes we mentioned above, any junmai sakes or regular ginjo or daiginjo, can also be a namazake if they are unpasteurized.

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Genshu sakes are undiluted heavyweights

This final term is potentially the most valuable in the list, so do yourself a favor and commit it to memory. Genshu means you're looking at a cask strength, undiluted, full throttle brew. That means you’re drinking sake with no added water, in its natural, fermented state. Alcohol content aside, genshu sake has the mettle to stand up to hearty, red meat dishes with ease. And keep this in mind: any of the above classifications of sake can also be marked as genshu.

So Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu? Totally a thing. That puts your triple-venti-soy-no-foam-latte in perspective, doesn't it? 

And there you have it. Everything you need to leap headlong into a love affair with sake. We have it on good authority that even the pros at Shibuya will be impressed if you drop this kind of knowledge on your next visit. And here's one last tip from Bruno's personal philosophy to set you on your way: a 1.8L bottle is the perfect size for two people -- especially if one of them isn't drinking.