Top 5 Things to Know about Sake

For many, sake is a passion--they know every detail there is to know about the different varieties and how it they are brewed.  Still, you do not need to know the difference between Genshu and Nigorizake to enjoy Japanese sake.  Here are 5 tips to serve as a crash course before you start your sake journey in Japan:
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1) When in Japan, refer to sake as Nihonshu:  

Although "sake" is the term commonly used in English to refer to the Japanese rice wine, in Japan, it is more appropriate to call it "Nihonshu" (Nihon-shoo).  The reason is that "sake" is actually the Japanese term for any alcoholic beverage, while Nihonshu narrows the type of alcohol to rice wine.

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2) Karakuchi vs. Amakuchi:

The two basic flavor palettes for sake include karakuchi (dry) or amakuchi (sweet).  Amakuchi will typically be smoother than karakuchi, but the sweetness can be off-putting for some, especially when trying to pair with Japanese cuisine.  Karakuchi is a safe bet for any Japanese meal.
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3) Junmai & Ginjo:  

When brewing sake, there are many important factors that influence quality and taste, but the two most common are qualified under the terms junmai and ginjo.  If the sake is described as Junmai, that means the sake is made only with white rice, rice koji, and water (typical sake has additional yeast and fermentation starter added).  Junmai-shu is smoother than its counterparts.  Sake described as Ginjo is made of rice that has been milled down so only 60% of the rice grain is remaining, which contributes to higher quality portions of the rice going into the brewing process (see the picture above to see the difference between the white milled rice in the middle bag and others used for brewing).  When the rice has been milled down to less than 50% of the grain remaining, it is even higher quality and called Dai-ginjo.  Of course, those two factors can be combined, so if you want to order quality sake, you should shoot for Nihonshu that is classified as Junmai, Junmaiginjo, or Junmaidaiginjo.

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4) Good Nihonshu should be drunk cold:  

Understandably, everything comes down to preference and if you prefer hot sake, order it hot.  However, it is important to understand that fine sake is supposed to be appreciated cold, even in winter months.  The reason for this is that heating sake affects the flavor and the smoothness of the drink.  This is good for taking a lower quality sake and making it more pleasant to drink (that is, something that would burn going down if it was drunk cold goes down a lot smoother if it is warmed up).  However, if you order a high quality sake and ask for it to be served hot, you will lose some of the characteristics that make it a high quality sake in the first place.
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5) How to Order it in a Restaurant:  

Now that you have the basics, here is how you order it.  Ask the wait staff for Nihonshu.  If there is no English menu, you can use the knowledge from above to ask for Nihonshu that is (1) amakuchi or karakuchi and (2) junmai, junmaiginjo, or junmaidaiginjo.  Then you can tell the staff how you want it served, either hot or cold.  Once you have made a selection, the staff will ask what size you would like.  Typically, it will come in two size increments: (1) 一合 "ichi-go" small vessel meant for one to two people (note: ichi-go orders one, ni-go orders two, and san-go orders three); and (2) 一升 "hito-masu," a full bottle.
With this basic information in mind, I hope you will be able to go out and enjoy some good sake (responsibly, of course!).
[Special thanks to Yachiya Brewery in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Pref., for teaching me all that I need to know about Sake!  If you get a chance to visit Kanazawa city, please stop and enjoy some of the best sake in Japan.  Website here]

Mike B