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A beginner’s guide to sake

Discover everything you need to know about sake, including how to serve, what foods to pair with your tipples and some delicious cocktails to try

Sake is a wide and varied type of alcohol brewed from fermented rice. It’s a unique Japanese product, and, as such, is still fairly rare to find. However, with Japanese street food and spirits currently in vogue, many more venues are offering sake.

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If you’ve tried one kind of sake and weren’t impressed, it doesn’t mean that you won’t like a different one. Sake can be aged, sparkling, flavoured, sweet, sharp, light, cloudy, clear and everything in between. If you’re new to the world of sake and find a place that has a good selection, talk to the bartender and see what they recommend. Or, if you’re feeling brave, simply dive in. If you find a sake you like, make a note of the style and flavour notes – this will help you choose something similar in future.

How do I order sake?

Traditionally, a standard serving size of sake is called a ‘go’ (180ml) and is served in a tokkuri (toe-ker-ee) – a traditional ceramic pitcher – alongside a set of choko (choh-koh) ceramic cups. These tiny cups may seem very inconvenient, but they’re actually a ritual in the consumption of sake, as you are never to let your friend’s cup go dry. The tiny cups force interaction between a group of people – sake is always better enjoyed with friends. Higher-end sake is often drunk out of a wine glass, as this allows the sake to breathe, bringing out some of the more subtle flavours.

Should all sake be served hot?

It’s usually the cheaper stuff that is served hot, as heating sake tends to round out the flavour and make cheaper options taste better. This doesn’t mean that hot sake doesn’t have its place, though. When the weather outside is cold, hot sake can act as a warming drink before facing the elements.

What food or snacks does it go well with?

Think of sake as you would any other wine. Lighter, more crisp styles pair well with salads and fish, while aged sake works well with heavier, meat-based meals, as well as fried foods. Ones with sweeter and sharper notes or flavoured sake can be perfect companions to desserts.

Sake labels explained

Sake labels tend to have a lot of information on them – the only issue for Western consumers is that this tends to be in Japanese characters. Here is a list of five of the most widely available sake types on the market in the UK:

Honjōzō (hon-joe-zo) is an entry-level sake that’s the most widely available and will usually cost less, making it a great place to start if you want to try a traditional sake for the first time.

Ginjō (gheen-joe) translates to ‘carefully selected brew’. The ‘carefully selected’ phrase refers to the rice, which must be polished to at least 60 per cent of its original size. This process increases the value of the sake, as well as bringing a smoother finish. This is a great choice for branching out and learning about the subtle nuances of this unique liquid.

Daiginjō (die-gheen-joe) is the ‘great carefully selected brew.’ The addition of the word ‘great’ means the rice must be polished to at least 50 per cent of its original size. This sake is considered the highest quality, and as such holds a much larger price tag. This would be a great candidate for sipping from a wine glass as a special treat, as this will bring out all of the character that has been crafted with great diligence.

Genshu (ghen-shoo) is undiluted or full-strength sake. Most sake is left to naturally ferment to 20-22 per cent alcohol and diluted later. This high-ABV sake can be enjoyed in a similar way to whisky – adding a few drops of water will bring out the flavours that the initial alcohol content will hide.

Koshu (koh-shoo), meaning ‘old sake,’ refers to aged or matured sake. It can be written in various forms, such as ‘o-goshu’ (meaning ‘great old sake’), ‘ko-koshu’ (meaning ‘old old sake’) or hizoshu (meaning ‘treasured sake’). The majority of these start life as a daiginjō-style sake that’s then aged in wooden barrels, some of which may have held different alcohols previously. The cost of a more mature sake is comparable to that of a high-quality whisky or cognac. For many, this type of sake can be somewhat overpowering due to the heavier flavour notes, but if you love dark spirits, keep your eyes peeled for this special treat.

Try our top sake cocktails

Sake cocktails

Try these creative sake cocktails for elegant sipping drinks, fun and fruity party cocktails and twists on old favourites. Get to grips with sharp and citrussy yuzu sake in this kanpai colada, sparkling sake in a kir impériale or rich plum sake in our punchy soul reviver cocktail.

Enjoyed these cocktails? Try our other top tipples…

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What’s your favourite way to serve sake? Leave a comment below…

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Luke has been bartending for over 10 years and owns Bar Ikigai in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, a Japanese inspired independent cocktail bar.