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Everything You Need To Know About Sake, According To Experts

Here's what you should know about Japanese rice wine.

Maybe you've been drinking sake your entire life. Or perhaps you've never tried it before. Whatever the case, it's time to pay attention to this Japanese alcohol.

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So we talked to two sake experts: Monica Samuels, sake samurai at Vine Connections and Dean Fuerth, beverage director at Manhattan's exclusive Sushi Nakazawa. They answered all our questions and broke down the basics about sake.

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1. First things first: What is sake?

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Sake is a Japanese fermented alcoholic beverage, which is made of rice. While many people call sake rice wine, it's actually not wine at all, explained Monica. In fact, "the process of brewing sake is more similar to that of brewing beer," she says. But unlike beer, which often includes hops, rice is the only grain used in a true sake.

2. Cool, so how is sake made?

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Long story short, sake is made by brewing sake rice, water, and koji, which refers to the rice that has allowed mold to grow on its grains, explained Monica. The person who brews sake is called a Toji, and he or she can play around with the fermentation process to make a unique final product.

3. How should I drink it?

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Traditionally, you'd drink sake out of either square, cedar boxes called masu, or small cups called ochoko that are made of porcelain, ceramic, or glass, says Dean. But you can drink sake however you like. Drinking it from a wine glass is also a good idea because it makes it easier to taste the quality and nuances of flavor and aroma, he adds.

4. Why is some sake served hot and some served cold?

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Historically, sake was served warm. But as technology has advanced over generations, the flavor profiles have changed, producing better sake that is often served chilled. "Now, it's mostly the cheaper variations you order at a restaurant that might be served warm," Dean tells us.

5. Are there different kinds of sake?

6. So, what are the different qualities? In other words, is there a rating system for sake?

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Just like many wine regions (called DOCs) label wine according to a quality scale, there is also a system for rating the quality of sake. Dean explains that the first level of sake is called Junmai, which means good quality. From there, you move on to Junmai Ginjo (high quality) and Junmai Daiginjo (premium quality). There are other labels that describe a bottle of sake such as namazake (unpasteurized), nigori (unfiltered) and koshu (aged), he tells us. Below everything else, there is also table sake. It's called Futsu-shu, which isn't even a grade because no milling rate is required, adds Monica.

7. Speaking of unfiltered sake, what is that?

8. What are some useful words to describe sake and one's personal taste for it?

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"Most sake falls into the category of fruity and floral or savory and umami. Sakes also tend to either be full bodied or light bodied," Monica says. Just as many people prefer certain beers or wines, most people will have a favorite sake. Dean suggests that if you love dry, refreshing wines like Sancerre and Albariño, try sake from the Niigata prefecture. If you prefer fuller bodied wines like Cabernet sauvignon, check out Dassai from Yamaguchi Prefecture, which are usually rich and fruit-forward sakes.

9. Besides for Japanese food, what are some meals that go great with sake?

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Dean said some of his go-to pairings are barbecue ribs, spaghetti carbonara, and grilled salmon. Monica suggests pairing sake with mild, tart goat cheese, barbecue, or oysters. Since the savory salinity you taste when eating oysters is similar to the saltiness in soy sauce and miso, it's a natural match, she explains.

If you're looking for some great beginner sakes, here are Monica's and Dean's picks:

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Monica's picks

1. Bushido, Ginjo Genshu ($6): This canned sake is perfect for sipping on poolside, taking camping or enjoying over the course of a game night with friends.

2. Tozai Living Jewel, Junmai ($10): Light and easy drinking, it's the perfect beginner's sake.

3. Tozai Snow Maiden, Junmai Nigori ($10): If you want to try cloudy sake, give this a go. It has a creamy texture and full body.

Dean's picks:

1. Tentaka Kuni, Hawk in the Heavens, Tokubetsu Junmai ($15): Fuller bodied, creamy texture, with earthy, savory flavors. Goes great with barbecue and grilled meats.

2. Wakatake, Demon Slayer, Junmai Daiginjo ($27): A mix of ripe melon flavors and earthy aromatics. Great with richer seafood like lobster, monkfish, and cod.


3. Midorikawa, Junmai ($30):
Easy-drinking, crisp, and dry. Perfect with light summer salads and crudos.

10. Check out how BuzzFeed is celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!

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