Sake 101: A drinker's guide to Japanese rice wine

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

To a wine-lover, a Japanese restaurant's sake list can be disorienting. There are no comfortable grape varietals-chardonnay, pinot grigio, cabernet sauvignon-to guide you, and in their place there are unfamiliar terms like nigori, ginjo and junmai. But these are words worth exploring, as sake offers a delicious drinking experience.

What is sake?

Sake (pronounced sah-keh, not sak-ee) is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. Its alcohol content is higher than most wines, with an ABV of 15 to 20 percent.

What makes sake different from other wines?

Technically, sake is not a wine at all. "Sake is actually closer to beer," explains Emma Christensen, author of "True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir and Kombucha at Home." "Sake is made in a double fermentation process that has more in common with beer brewing."

How is sake made?

Sake begins with special short-grain sake rice that has been polished to remove some of its outer layers. The rice is fermented by a fungus, and simultaneously by yeast. It is usually aged for about six months.

What kinds of sake are there?

Sake is classified by how finely milled the rice is before brewing. The more polished the rice, the higher the grade of sake. At the bottom: Futsu-shu (or just futsu-shu simply means "sake").

Honjozo is a mid-grade sake, followed by ginjo and daiginjo (both premium). These all include additional distilled alcohol. Junmai sake, on the other hand, is brewed only with rice and no extra alcohol is added.

Is premium sake better than lower grades?

The higher (more expensive) grades have different flavors. But sake of all grades and classifications can be delicious and wonderful to drink. The best sake is balanced, no matter its dominant flavor.

What's the difference between filtered and unfiltered sake?

Most sake is filtered to smooth its flavor, but nigori sake is left unfiltered, with cloudy rice sediment left in the bottle. Unfiltered sake tends to be fuller and sweeter, and this sweetness makes it a good introductory sake.

Is warm sake inferior?

Heating some premium sakes would destroy their nuances. But other sakes are actually best when gently warmed-and can be profoundly wonderful on a cold day. Restaurant menus and sake bottles will indicate when a sake can be served warm.

When should I drink sake? Does it go with food?

The right sake is delicious with food. "I go for a middle-grade sake such as junmai-shu," says Kanji Nakatani, the chef of Soba Ra, a restaurant in Kamikawa, Japan. "I would not order daiginjo or ginjo because they will get in the way of tasting the food."

On the other hand, sake can be so delicate that you can lose some of its nuances when drinking with food.

"If you really want to learn about sake," says Christensen, "drink it on its own."

How can I choose a sake I'll enjoy off a restaurant menu?

Pay attention to the different classifications of sake, and order a different one each time, focusing on the characteristics of each. Look for unique elements.

"I like sake that has some kind of character," says Christensen. She looks for interesting descriptors on the restaurant's list, like "sour" or "tropical flavors."

Beyond this, lean on your server or the chef to help you find a sake you'll enjoy. Describe the flavors you're looking for. Sake's flavors may be subtle, but they can lean sweet, dry, fruity or clean.

"Sake is a really nuanced drink," says Christensen. "It's not going to hit you over the head. But if you drink it and really pay attention, it can have a lot going on."

What foods go well with sake?

The clean flavors of most sakes pair well with nearly any fish preparation, or with simple, comforting dishes like soba or udon.

"Sake can be great with salad," says Christensen. "Its sweeter flavor balances bitter greens."

Where to drink sake in Columbus

Exploring sake for the first time? We asked a few of our favorite Japanese restaurants to share their picks for beginners.

Akai Hana

1173 Old Henderson Rd.,Upper Arlington

Pomoko, the general manager at this always-packed sushi bar, recommends Onigoroshi, which they serve in a Japanese cedar box to enhance the flavor of the sake. "Guests like the cedar smell and taste," she says.


2667 Federated Blvd., Dublin

Chef Michael Kimura of the quietly fabulous Kihachi recommends Kira, a very crisp and dry honjozo sake that he serves cold in a weighty glass.

"This is very good with food," he told us.

Sushi En

1051 Gemini Pl., Polaris

James Gillis, the manager of this lively Polaris favorite, looks to customers' preferences before suggesting sake.

"When people are curious about sake I ask them how they take their usual wines. Sweet? Dry? Somewhere in between?" he explains.

If a guest, for instance, enjoys dry white wines, he would recommend Ozeki-a dry, crisp, clean sake served chilled, and refreshing without a strong alcohol aftertaste.

Faith Durand is the executive editor of