The 5 Best Sakes That Will Make You Want to Visit Japan

September 15, 2022
by Jack Lyons
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Japan is a culture of traditions and exquisite flavors that everyone dreams of one day being able to taste. But unfortunately, not all of us can be so lucky to hop on a plane to the land of the rising sun.

While most stores across the world sell other Japanese delicacies such as sushi and ramen, the world of sake still seems to be a confusing one.

Called sake (pronounced 'sah-keh') in the western market, this Japanese rice wine is actually called nihonshu (roughly translating to Japanese alcoholic drink) as sake in Japanese is actually a catch-all term for alcohol.

Sake is made with fermented rice, similar to the process which makes beer from grains. The base ingredients of sake are rice, clear water, yeast, and koji-kin.

Koji-kin is the fungus involved in the fermentation process and is also used when making miso and soy sauce. When koji-kin is cultivated in the rice, it creates koji.

Most people are hesitant about microorganisms in their food and drink, but don't worry, koji-kin is FDA approved and safe for food fermentation.

With sake, the rice kernels are typically polished down. This is because brewers want the starchy center of the rice rather than the outside which is high in fat and protein.

How much of the outside is milled down will change the type of sake. This is why larger grains of rice are typically used in sake making since you can have a larger yield of usable rice.

In this guide, we have included the five best sakes for you to get an experience like no other.

There is also a buyer's guide and any frequently asked questions about sake so you can make the most informed decision.

Hakkaisan Junmai Daiginjo

One of the most recognizable names in the sake business, Hakkaisan has been brewing their sake for 100 years, and it shows in their finished product.

They are located in the Niigata prefecture of Japan, which is known for its good quality rice and snowfall; this is reflected in the crisp taste of their sake.

A beautiful lightweight and dry sake to please any sake drinker.

With a slightly sweet taste and floral scent, it makes the perfect beginner sake. Enjoy it hot or cold; this rice wine is versatile enough to match any pallet.

Pros

  • Great for beginners and for sake pros - Praised for being a great beginner sake but also appealing to those who are well versed in sake.
  • Well-known brewery - Buying a popular brand means they clearly know what they're doing in order to get such a positive reputation.

Cons

  • Expensive - Being on the most expensive side, this bottle should be savored for special occasions.

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Dassai 45 Junmai Daiginjo

This family-owned brewery uses Yamada Nishiki rice to make its sake, this rice has also been called 'the king of sake-making rice'.

The Dassi sake also comes in different polishing ratios. The Dassai 45 has a 45% polishing ratio, but you can also get it in 23% ratio and 39% ratio for a richer flavor.

The Dassai 45 is described as their "most accessible" sake, pairing beautifully with both eastern and western food.

Being an off-dry sake, you get a soft and rich flavor that is lightly fruity. Perfect for any occasion.

To get the best flavor profile it is recommended to drink this sake cold. Unlike other sake, which is served in small glasses,

Dassai suggests drinking this particular sake out of a wine glass to get the full experience. Great for those who don't own a lot of glass storage space.

Pros

  • Almost tropical taste - Some have described it as having almost melon-like notes. Great if you're having a nice dessert after your meal.
  • Available in different milling percentages - If you like this sake then you can try different varieties knowing that you already like the flavor.

Cons

  • Not very traditional - In an attempt to appeal to western audiences, this sake is considered not as traditional as some of the others.

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Ozeki Premium Junmai

The Ozeki brewery was first founded in 1711, before establishing itself in the USA in 1979, and has been making traditional sake to be enjoyed all around the globe.

This budget friendly sake is great for an everyday treat with its nuanced flavors and clean finish.

A dry sake with earthy notes, this bottle is enjoyed in every country, and at 14.5% alcohol content it can help loosen up any social interaction.

Enjoy it chilled or warm for the best experience and pair it with sushi or sashimi. Ozeki Premium is possibly the best beginner sake on the market to get that traditional taste.

Pros

  • Cheap - If you want to try sake without the guilt of not liking it then this bottle is your best friend.
  • Full bodied flavor - Despite being cheaper than some other sakes, it still provides a great full bodied flavor.

Cons

  • Dry - Typically beginners want to lean towards a sweeter sake since it's closer to western boxed wines.

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Tamagawa Tokubetsu Junmai

If you are a fan of scotch whisky then this is the sake for you. Best served hot, this sake gives the consumer a thick and chewy experience no other sake can give you.

Tamagawa brewery has been in production since 1842 and has prided itself on challenging industry preconceptions when it comes to sake brewing.

Bursting with nutty and zingy berry-like flavors this sake is ideal for those cold winter seasons. Its silky texture makes it easy to drink so be sure to drink responsibly.

The umami flavor of this sake works spectacularly well with fuller-flavored foods. Some tough to beat pairings would be steak, stew and fried foods.

Pros

  • The Toji (brewing master) is from The UK - Taste a part of history from the first foreign Toji.
  • 'Spontaneous fermentation' process without pure yeast cultures - This innovative technique gives their sake a unique flavor like nothing else.

Cons

  • Either you love it or hate it - From the first sip you will either be in love, or require a sake with a lighter flavor. If you are looking for a good beginner sake this isn't it.

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Gekkeikan Nouvelle Junmai Ginjo

Gekkeikan Nouvelle Junmai Ginjo

Brewing since 1637, you can't get a more traditional sake flavor than Gekkeikan.

Being a pioneer in the sake industry, the Gekkeikan company also has the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum in Kyoto so you can learn about the history of the company and its sake brewing process.

This light and pure sake comes in a gorgeous bottle, ensuring every sip feels dedicent. Packed with intense flavors and a gentle acidity, this sake is best served at room temperature or chilled.

Although the Gekkeikan Nouvelle is praised for its intense flavors, you're still able to enjoy the notes of rice, juniper and fruit throughout.

Pros

  • Great for decoration - Possible the most aesthetically pleasing bottle on this list. If you like to decorate your house in gorgeous bottles then this is the one for you.
  • A pure rice flavor - For a pure rice flavor you really can't get a better sake.

Cons

  • Intense flavor for beginners - While producing a gorgeous intense flavor, those beginning their sake journey may not find this sake to be the best starting point.

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Buyer's Guide

Here are a few things to note before venturing down the sake train.

Types Of Sake

There are many different types of sake, the most common ones are:

  • Daiginjo - The rice has been milled to a 50% ratio at minimum.
  • Ginjo - The rice has been milled to a 40% ratio at minimum.
  • Honjozo - A small amount of alcohol has been added to the sake. This helps to cut back on production time and makes it lighter on the pallet than other sakes. Some brewers can use this additional alcohol to enhance certain flavors and aromas.
  • Junmai - No additional alcohol has been added leading to complex layers of flavor. This type of sake is typically better served chilled or at room temperature.
  • Namakaze - This sake isn't pasteurized, meaning it needs to be kept refrigerated in order to retain all its flavors. This type of sake is known to have a fresh and fruity taste.
  • Nigori - Also known as 'cloudy sake'. This sake has been filtered with a broader mesh leading to some rice sediment being left behind. This type of sake is usually sweeter and creamier than its filtered counterpart.

A bottle of sake may come under multiple of these types based on its brewing process.

For example, a bottle can be labeled as 'Junmai Daiginjo' if it was made with a rice that was milled to a 50% ratio at minimum and has no additional alcohol.

How To Read A Sake Bottle Label

For people who don't read Japanese, sake bottles can seem more like works of art rather than an informative label. But don't worry we're here to help.

The top of the label will usually say what kind of sake it is. This is usually the only information you need when choosing your sake.

Here are some of the common words you will find and how they're written in Japanese.

  • Daiginjo - 大吟醸
  • Ginjo - 銀城
  • Honjozo - 本醸造
  • Junmai - 純米
  • Namakaze - 生酒

The bottom of the label will give the bottling date, be wary of anything bottled over a year ago.

While in western cultures, the number in front of the '%' will be its alcohol content. This is not the case for sake bottles.

The back of a sake bottle will say the alcohol percentage and the rice polishing percentage.

To not get confused the alcohol content will be the number that is 14-16 whereas the rice polishing percentage will be higher (around the 50s usually).

Cost

Sake comes in a wide range of prices, so no matter your budget you can indulge in this Japanese beverage.

While sake is typically more expensive than wine we have yet to find a bad sake so even if you buy a $10 bottle you know you're getting a good quality bottle.

Some sake bottles can even go into the $100 price range. For those extra-fancy events you can buy a bottle with gold flakes floating in it.

Granted, gold flakes do nothing for the taste, but they sure look extravagant.

Sake Set

If you want to partake in the traditional way of drinking sake then you will need to invest in a sake set.

The set comes with a tokkuri (a flash for your sake) and ochoko (small cups to drink your sake from).

If heating your sake then you heat it in the tokkuri in a warm pot of water.

Remember, just because sake is served in small cups it doesn't mean that it should be treated as a shot. Sake is meant to be sipped and savored.

Sake sets come in a wide variety of colors, materials, and shapes so you can get the set that best matches your personal taste.

Flavored Sake

If you see flavored sake, that typically means it has been infused with fruit. Common flavors include ume (plum) and yuzu (similar to a lemon).

You can find more adventurous flavors such as strawberry (ichigo), peach (momo) and cherry blossom (sakura).

Mixers And Cocktails

While sake does taste fantastic by itself, it can be used in cocktails and with mixers. Most sake purists will be appalled by this idea but it's your drink, why not get adventurous.

We recommend leaning into the fruity and herbal notes that sake brings and mix it with orange or cucumber drinks.

Food Pairings

Sake makes a fantastic partner to all types of food. Of course, it pairs well with traditional Japanese foods such as sushi, sashimi and tempura.

Honjozo style sake pairs great with grilled food. From fish to vegetables, the aromas of a honjozo sake really enhance the hot grilled food.

Junmai style sake has no added alcohol so the umami flavor really shines through. This means that it compliments well with soy-based sauces and spicy food.

For any food that doesn't typically pair well with wine or beer why not try it with a refreshing sake.

If you really want to incorporate the flavors then you can cook your meals with sake. You can even buy cooking sake which gives a more concentrated flavor.

Frequently Asked Questions

Curious about the most common questions around sake?

Is Sake A Wine Or A Beer?

While sake is called a 'rice wine' it typically has a slightly higher alcohol content, and can't be aged like wine.

The brewing process is similar to beer but isn't carbonated.

Sake is usually clear in color (maybe with a slight amber tint), but isn't a distilled spirit like gin or vodka.

In truth sake is in a league of its own, and you need to try it to understand all its unique characteristics.

Does A Higher Milling Percentage Equal Higher Quality?

While this used to be the case, modern technology has allowed for different milling processes to allow premium sake.

Higher milled sake is usually more expensive, but that is because it takes longer to make.

Do I Drink Sake Hot, Cold, Or Room Temperature?

This is completely up to you.

Some sake benefit from being room temperature, you may want a warming drink in the colder seasons, or you have sensitive teeth and don't want a chilled drink.

One of the joys of sake is how versatile it is.

The way to warm up sake is to put it in a tokkuri (sake flask) and place that in the middle of a pot of boiling water, sort of like a double boiler.

Don't bring your sake to a boil as it would be too hot to drink. This should only take a couple of minutes.

How Do You Store Sake?

It is best to store it in a cool place away from light. If you live in a hot environment then we recommend storing it directly in the refrigerator.

Once opened it's ideal to consume it within a week.

What Rice Is Sake Made From?

Sake can be made from a variety of rice including general table rice. High-quality sake is made from a special sake rice which is described as 'unpalatable' when eaten.

Final Thoughts

Of course, with any alcohol beverage you have to be over the legal drinking age and responsible with what you put in your body.

Don't drink sake on an empty stomach (in fact it is recommended to enjoy it with a hearty meal) and be sure to drink plenty of water.

As long as you are smart with your drinking and don't get behind the wheel, then you can enjoy sake anywhere.

Cheers!

Or, as they say in Japan, Kanpai!

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