How to Drink Sake

Beginner to the wonderful world of Japanese sake? You don't want skip out on the basics of learning how to drink sake properly.

With over 2,500 years of history behind it, sake should be savored and appreciated, not slung back like a frat boy shooting tequila. (Sadly, many sake beginners limit their experience with Japan's national beverage to sake bombs and shots!)

Learn how to appreciate & enjoy sake to its fullest. Nail the basics with this sake drinking guide for beginners...

The basics of drinking sake

Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. It's often colloquially called "rice wine," but that moniker isn't quite accurate. (And if you've ever wondered "Is sake wine?", you're not alone.)

In fact, sake is closer to beer than it is to wine in its brewing process! (Although, typically, stronger in alcohol content.)

Much wine or beer, sake can't be summarized in a single sentence. There are several different types of sake. Each is armed with its own specific flavor profile. Depending on which variety you choose, you'll have different options for how you engage your sake tasting experience.

As you may already know, it's common to drink sake both hot/warm and cold.

In general, higher-end daiginjo and ginjo sake is meant to be enjoyed cold. The cooler temperature helps to bring out the complexities of the sake flavors.

Cheaper and more "run-of-the-mill" sakes like regular junmai or honjozo, on the other hand, are often better enjoyed warm. The flavors of these varieties tend to be less complex. The warming process helps weed out less desirable characteristics in the flavor profile.

When you're first starting out on your sake drinking experience, you should aim for variety. There's a wide array of tastes and aromas to enjoy. You may find more pleasure in some types of sake more than others.

One thing to keep an eye out for with sake is its nihonshu, a measure of sweetness vs. dryness. This metric is also called sake meter value (SMV). A higher SMV indicates a drier, less sweet sake. A negative number (for example, -2) signals a sweeter sake.

How to serve sake

The most traditional way to serve sake is by pouring the drink from a porcelain flask, called a tokkuri, into small ceramic cups called choko.

When drinking sake with others in Japan, it's considered bad taste to pour your own cup. Most often, others at your table will offer to fill up your glass when it's empty. When others empty their glasses, it's considered polite to refill their cup for them.

Higher-quality sake like junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo are best enjoyed chilled. For these premium sake varieties, it's becoming more common to see cold sake served in wine glasses.

Regular junmai-style sake and honjozo, on the other hand, are often served hot or warm. Serving sake warm helps uncover sublter flavors in less complex brews. Hot sake and warm sake are also commonly served alongside food, especially at all-you-can-eat sushi joints outside of Japan. (Not that it's the recommended way to enjoy sake!)

How to taste sake

Sake-tasting is much like wine-tasting. Many of the same "quirks" apply.

Before you pour a glass of that top-rated sake, be sure to take a look at the bottle. You'll want to check for any discoloration or floating particles. This may indicate that your sake has gone bad.

(It's important to learn how to store your sake properly to avoid this.)

The one exception to this rule is nigori sake. This sake variety is unfiltered and takes on a cloudy appearance. (You may even see some remnants of koji rice floating around the sake bottle.)

Next, pour in swirl the sake around your glass to allow its unique aromatics to release. Place your nose into the glass to get the full olfactory experience. You may notice a variety of scents emerging from the glass from fruity and floral to earthy and savory.

As you take your first sip, inhale gently to activate the flavors. Like wine, swirl it around your mouth to hit all the different tastebuds. Exhale as you swallow, and enjoy the unique experience of sake!