Sake, How do you choose?

We need a thread for Sake.

I love Sake, but my knowledge is VERY minimal, and my choices are largely based on a combination of price point, whimsy, and what the server recommends.

What are your favorites? How do you choose? Filtered vs Unfiltered? Hot vs Cold? What details deserve attention when choosing Sake? Rice type? Production?

Thanks all in advance.

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For me, it’s simple, but you probably won’t like my answer . . .

I look for sake that’s imported by World Sake Imports of Honolulu, Hawai’i.

My sake knowledge is far more limited than my wine knowledge, but in the same way that – even if I don’t know the specific wine – I trust wines from certain importers (Louis/Dressner, Jorge Ordoñez, Terry Theise, among others), I trust the sake from World Sake.

More specifically,

  • ALWAYS cold, never “hot”;
  • I prefer Jumai or Daiginjo in terms of style;
  • It’s just me, but I prefer filtered to “cloudy”;
  • When it comes to specific producers, I enjoy (alphabetically) Dewazakura and Masumi/Miyasaka, among others . . . .
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You can subscribe to John Gauntner’s Sake Newsletter (it’s free)–he’s also written two easy to follow books with recommendations (check Amazon.) If you go on line to Sakaya.com, a store in NYC specializing in high quality sake, you’ll find useful descriptions of 100 of so sakes they stock.

I too prefer cool/cold clear sake but sometime, the cloudy type (Nigori) works with certain foods…

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The truesake.com newsletter is quite informative.

I generally tend towards junmai, junmai ginjo, or junmai daiginjo if I’m splurging, depending on what food I’m eating it with; the latter requires more delicate foods. I do like sake by itself, too, but it’s fairly expensive. Always cold for me. Not into nigori - too sweet and not as focused (but my judgment of it may be clouded by finding out that it started originated from a desperate marketing ploy in a bad season, or so I was told).

Some very popular names in Japanese restaurants in America that are quite good; you will probably see these and they’re well-liked for many reasons:

  • Kubota (“Manjyu” in particular is a big crowd pleaser for occasions, but watch out on markup here because it’s extremely popular)
  • Hakkaisan
  • Dewazakura “Wakatake Onikoroshi” (“The Demon Slayer”)
  • Dassai
    note that there’s often range of selection for each of these in both style and price.

Some others that I quite like:

  • Senshin Junmai Daiginjo (for complex elegance) ~$100
  • Kokuryu “Gold Dragon” Daiginjo (for power and elegance, especially good w/ shellfish) ~$100
  • Born “Gold” Junmai Daiginjo (a nice balance of go-to easiness but still sophisticated, and price is good too! I tend to drink this fairly often as far as sake goes) ~$40
  • Denshu “Tokubetsu” Junmai (good with both sushi and grilled) ~$50
  • Ken “The Sword” Daiginjo ~$70
  • Kokuryu “Black Dragon” Junmai Ginjo (with grilled foods) ~$45
  • Shichida Junmai (with grilled foods) ~$40
  • Fukuju “Happy Brewery” Junmai Ginjo (for an easy, fruity, smooth one) ~$40
  • Tedorigawa “Silver Mountain” Junmai (dry and smooth, pretty versatile) ~$35

On my wish list: Kamoshibito Kuheiji daiginjo “Eau du Desir,” Born “Dreams Come True” (for the right celebratory occasion), Seryo Miyasakae Tenmi (for the coolest bottle/label ever).

For pairing as a palette cleanser or even as a popular apertif / cocktail ingredient for the ladies: Yuzu Omoi. It goes very well with seafood offal (think firefly squid) for which you’d want some citrus brightness to cut it. Too much for sashimi, though, think livers For cocktails, I experiment using Yuzu Omoi with cava (if I’m on a budget, or otherwise some Henriot “Souverain” Brut champagne), St. Germain, and some fresh yuzu rind after wiping the rim. It’s my “フランス語 75” (Japanese “French 75”).

It really heightens the experience when I drink out of a kiriko ochoko, i.e. cut-glass style of sake cup. Traditionally the cedar ‘masu’ (used to apportion rice) was used to ensure fair pours, but the cedar does mask the nuances of more delicate sakes.

I kind of choose depending on my mood / budget - often times if I’m eating yakitori I’ll go somewhat by price and somewhat by ones I’ve heard of before or names I want to try. I’m trying to expand my repertoire so I will venture out here and there, just trying the server’s recommendation. I also read a lot of descriptions on truesake.com to try to get a sense of what might pair well with certain types of foods, and I try to remember names. Of course, the best knowledge comes from actually drinking it, but admittedly the process for me has been slower than I would like, as it’s not easy to always remember everything and sake isn’t cheap.

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(1) Hot sake is disgusting.
(2) The best sakes, as with the best white wines, should not be served ice cold - rather at a cooler cellar temperature.
(3) Nigori is almost like piña colada.
(4) How do I choose? I’m no expert at all. There are a few labels/bottles I recognize, so when I see them I know I have a safe bet. Server recommendation will depend on where I am. In the rare event I’m dealing with a clear upsell or clueless server, usually a reliable reasonable bet is on the menu.
(5) For everyday reliable reasonable pour (not that I drink it everyday), you can’t go wrong with
https://www.takarasake.com/Shoppingpage.php?productId=11 and
https://www.takarasake.com/Shoppingpage.php?productId=15 . I like the organic one a bit more. These are widely available. They are also the hometown Berkeley brew.
(6) I have the good fortune of living right near a Japanese fish market with a nice sake selection, so I’ll sample various things from time to time. Perhaps you have one near you.
(7) The best sake I ever had was quite a treat. I had no idea what I was drinking at the time. I took a note from the bottle and went searching - to find out “oh, that’s about $150 a bottle.”
(8) Hot sake is disgusting.

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Thank you Thank you Thank you all!! This is great! I was seeking a basic primer and you have all given me a solid tutorial.

Absolutely right. “Cold” sake is never cold, and I should have been more clear in my initial post.

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When you mentioned “eau du desir” it reminded me of the first pour from the house’s 1.8 L bottle at Sushisho Hirano in Osaka beginning of this year. I can’t read hiragana unfortunately. Wish I could remember exactly how it tasted but it was very good.

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For me I’m more into Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo, but will partake in the occasional Junmai Ginjo. Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are perfect for sashimi, nigiri sushi, and places that do a combination of high end sushi and cooked food. Junmai Ginjo is also quite versatile, and at times a good pairing with izakaya type food when you don’t want something too fruit forward like some Daiginjo’s. Daiginjo and kaiseki cuisine together is one of the greatest experiences for a sake lover (and those really into Japanese cuisine).

The best way to start is to try as many different varieties as possible (and even if you are far beyond the starting point), ask a lot of questions, or join friends who are more knowledgeable and can articulate and share with you about the subtleties and what is good. Ultimately taste is always subjective, and once you figure out what you like, you can zero in on a brewer, a particular region, or just trying different styles of the same type (e.g. Daiginjo or Junmai Daiginjo).

True Sake recently held their annual Sake Day tasting in San Francisco, the price of admission was roughly $60 to $70 per person and you would get to taste a wide variety offered by various brewers, distributors. There may be similar events elsewhere. It’s a great way to start.

Ones I like?

Dassai line (50, 39, 23) - These are a great intro to Junmai Daiginjo and learning about sake. It’s a fantastic starting point for someone who wants to start drinking high quality sake. But they have fallen out of favor quite a bit recently for me, as they are incredibly popular and now more widely available. At the same time, their characteristics are not as sophisticated or complex as others since gravitating away and for me, exploring other sake. The 23 has the most lowest rice polishing ratio on the market that is affordable. 50 runs anywhere between $25 to $30, 39 maybe $40 to $50 and 23 is $70 and up (this is retail from a Japanese supermarket, more depending on where you are, and higher in a restaurant with markup). I think my intro to sake was Dassai 50. Very accessible and easy to like. 39 is far more fruit forward. 23 is quite blissful when having sashimi (e.g. pristine sea urchin)

Koshi No Kanbai - this is a brewery from Niigata Prefecture. Their “Kinmuku” Junmai Daiginjo is one of my top favorites at the moment but getting a bottle retail is super difficult in the States. The Daiginjo “Chotokusen” is very pricey, yet you only get 500 mL instead of the standard 750 mL, and the rice polishing on the Daiginjo is even lower (30%). In California you would have to go to certain restaurants that carry the lineup to try it.

Tokugetsu - this is a rare once a year seasonal (fall) sake by Asahi Shuzo Brewery (the ones that bring us Kubota sake). The rice is not our commonly known Yamadanishiki or Gohyaku Mangoku, but a locally grown (in Niigata Prefecture) rice varietal called Yuki No Sei. Sake may be just water and rice, but the combination can produce so many different results. One of those sakes that drinks almost like water. Milled to 28%, Junmai Daiginjo

Ten To Chi (Heaven & Earth) - this is a fantastic affordable Niigata Sake, Junmai Daiginjo. Kansansui is also quite good (not Niigata), In the $40s retail.

Ginga Shizuku (Divine Droplets) - Junmai Daiginjo from Hokkaido, brewed with the traditional drip method (instead of pressing). $50 to $70 retail.

Nanbu Bijin (Southern Beauty) “Ancient Pillars” - the tasting notes are pretty much spot on for this one. $60 to $70 retail

Cho Kai San (Akita Prefecture) - a beautiful floral Junmai Daiginjo that is very easy to like. I think I like this more than Dassai 50 or 39. $50 to $70. Do not miss this one if you get the chance to try it.

Hakurakusei (Junmai Daiginjo) - only came across this one by pure luck and not easy to find. It’s offered as the sake of choice on Japan Airlines domestic flights (within Japan). It’s so smooth and versatile (maybe a touch feminine). For those seriously looking to ball, their “8” label is over a thousand, and the rice polishing ratio is down to 8%. It’s like Cristal or however it is spelt for stars who pour them to fill up swimming pools.

Midoriwaka (Niigata Prefecture) - beautiful green bottle and logo. It’s a Junmai for me for this one. Very clean tasting and a good intro.

Kirizan (Niigata Prefecture) - The Junmai is excellent, as is their Junmai Daiginjo.

Kakurei (Niigata Prefecture) - their Junmai Ginjo is pretty good, and their Daiginjo is excellent (relatively harder to find). I love their plum infused sake (Junmai Ginjo).

Ichishima Daiginjo (competition) - one of the best Daiginjo’s I’ve had. Since it’s super limited it’s pretty hard to find. It’s a Niigata sake using a combination of Niigata rice and Yamadanishiki

Masumi - they have two Junmai Daiginjo’s “Sanka” (Mountain Flower" and “Nanago” (# 7). Sanka is incredibly popular, particularly Hong Kong for some reason where there are online sellers that sell mostly Masumi sake. However I felt Nanago was a better sake overall…Sanka seemed a touch harsh for me. They have a pricier Daiginjo that is also very popular that I have not tried yet.

I feel I will have more to add to the list soon.

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Truesake’s Sake Day allows you to try quite a bit of sake. There’s blind tastings, talking with the brewers, just letting our cup runneth over, etc. With that said, I went a few years ago and I think admission was like $40 - they hand you an ochoko and leave it up to you. The taiko drum banging to signal the countdown to the end messed me up. I drank wayyy too much such that I didn’t remember anything about the sakes I tried! So, it could be very educational or not educational at all, but that’s all up to you! A bowl of pho the next morning never tasted quite so good :grin: If I had to do it again, I’d definitely be a lot more judicious about the tastings and take notes so I could remember everything. Also, watch out for those that drink like pure spring water…it goes down almost too smoothly.

Agreed on Masumi Nagano, too.

KK - think it’s a good idea to move the hot sake posts from the Raku thread here? Seems fitting, imo.

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Sake Day was my first ever sake tasting, and to be honest I’ve only started getting serious about it in April this year. It was a lot of fun, but at the same time there were way too many things to try. I highly recommend anyone who likes sake or is just trying to get into it, just to attend and experience these things yourselves. The downside is that your wallet and credit card will hate you for life once you start to go crazy with the purchases after tasting. It’s the same with fine wine, isn’t it? Except one may still go nutty nutty when tasting a pre-release and preorder a whole case, or buy two bottles in case it’s a limited release, vs buying one bottle, liked it so much that later when you go back it’s sold out or only available through auction (and then your wallet will disown you).

The problem with sake tasting is that even if you spit out the tastings (haha it took me several cups early on to do that), unless you have a clear path of your preferences and can tell the subtleties of flavor, texture, fragrance, nose between the brewers and varieties, at some point your tastebuds start to numb a bit, that you only want to focus on the top stuff. Or you get to the point where you can’t really tell the difference between Brewer A’s Junmai Daiginjo vs the JDs by B, C, E, and F. Yes, it is when it starts to have the taste of super clean water, that is is freakin dangerous. Goes down smooth, then it hits you later (delayed effect). Ginga Shizuku is like that. Going down a bit dry, on the other hand, kind of triggers your brain into a slower delay mode rather than buzz creep.

Maybe Raku thread people will find this.

At Sake Day I’ve encountered some very interesting breweries, there are a few domestic ones too, including from Oregon and a label called Enter Sake (not to be confused with Enter Sandman Metallica, sorry couldn’t resist)…which I think Enter Sake is like a wine middle man, buying sake and doing their own bottling/labeling. Enter Sake is not bad for the price, I think the sake comes from Kyoto. Then there were these frou frou sake-tini cocktail drinks that were worse than some Nigori’s, literally Pina Colada infused sake. Oh dear lawd kill me now. BUT even with that said, I had a fanastic sparkling sake from Japan (not sold domestically) that was so easy to drink, you could make a bellini or brunch beverage out of it and have those Giada in the Garden with Friends moments. Or heck do a dessert with it and use that as a “soup” base.

As far as Nigori, very rarely drink it unless I have to. Reminds me too much of the Japanese soft drink Calpico with some alcohol added. Dassai 50’s Nigori is a good intro I guess, but it’s not quite my thing.

One other sake I forgot to mention as a favorite, another affordable sake from Kyoto…Tama No Hikari. $30 to $40 for a bottle and most Nijiya Supermarkets should have it too. Tasting this side by side with Ginga Shizuku, it made the Ginga seem more feminine in nature. TNH is a Junmai Daiginjo although I think they have higher polished versions out there.

I still find it fascinating that many Daiginjos out there are far more pricier than Junmai Daiginjo (depending on the brewer/supply and demand). The ones that are competition have the best killer packaging.

What’s even more fascinating is that we in most of USA only have access to a fraction of what’s available in Japan (or even Hong Kong) as access is more or less limited to a number of distributors. It’s also crazy what people elsewhere (e.g. Hong Kong) are willing to spend on some ridiculously high end sake, e.g. the Jyoundai series (14th generation) and almost unheard of Kokuryu (Black Dragon) varieties unavailable here.

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…almost unheard of Kokuryu (Black Dragon) varieties unavailable here."

Sakaya in NYC carries Black Dragon Junmai Ginjo (Sakayanyc.com)…

Love Black Dragon . . .

Had these two last night (among several others) . . .

Dewazakura Omachi “Jewel Brocade” Junmai Ginjo . . .

. . . and Kamoizumi Sachi 17-Year [Bottle] Aged Koshu (bottled in 1997; released for sale in 2014 . . . so I guess it’s “18-Year Aged Koshu”)

The Dewazakura Omachi is my go-to sake–the Omachi rice gives what I would call a “swollen” mouthfeel that’s balanced by acidity and fruitiness…I never tire of it. (By the way, from CH days, I was Penthouse Pup—good to read your many posts here and on Hungry Onion!)

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This is just a fraction of high end Kokuryu that is much harder to come by retail in my area or perhaps unavailable for retail for the most part (unless you have ties to distributors). At least in restaurants I may have seen the bottom Daiginjo, and other types (including the bottle called “88”).

Just a note: Sakayanyc.com has the Daiginjo (along with Black Dragon) in stock…

http://www.kokuryu.co.jp/en/sake/ which shows the bottles available outside of Japan (some not sold/exported in/to the US)

vs the full lineup available in Japan

http://www.kokuryu.co.jp/brew/kokuryu/

beefy and mark – you guys know a lot. thanks for sharing.

I figured that a little primer on sake could be helpful for wading through all of the terminology one encounters when buying/ordering sake.

Note that sake tends to aim to be a supporting actor, an enhancer to the food, one that heightens the food’s flavors but does not really compete for your attention. Because of this, umami and mouthfeel are important when it comes to sake. Flavor and aroma are also important, naturally. It’s often about balance, purity, and elegance. What this translates to is a predilection for a high milling (aka polishing) rate of each grain of rice. The polishing rate is sometimes described by the residual amount of grain that remains, known as the “seimaibuai.” There are a couple of categories for “seimaibuai”. The lower the seimaibuai, the more rice has been polished/milled down. At the heart of the rice grain is the “shinpaku” (“white heart”), where the starches are concentrated, and on the outer layers of the grain are the proteins, minerals, and fats, which may inhibit fermentation.

Polishing Rates

“Ginjo” = at least 40% of each rice grain has been milled away. A maximum of 60% of the rice grain remains, i.e. seimaibuai of at least 60%.* Note: some say 30% has been polished away.
“Daiginjo” = at least 50% of each rice grain has been milled away. A maximum of 50% of the rice grain remains, i.e. seimaibuai of at least 50%.

Impurities are often found in the outer layers, so a higher milling rate translates to a more delicate sake. But note that high polishing rates are difficult to achieve, and they’re time consuming (Dassai 23, with 23% of the grain remaining - and thus 77% had been milled away - takes 4 days to mill.) It gets commensurately more laborious for ultra-milled sakes like Zankyo “Super 9” (9% seimaibuai, meaning 91% of each rice grain has been milled away), which one article specified takes supposedly 250 hours to mill. The effect of higher polishing rates is a purer sake, a softer mouthfeel, a smoother blend of alcohol and water, etc. The overwhelming trend among consumers is towards ultra polished, more delicate sakes (though Westerners tend to buy a lot of big sweet nigoris).

Junmai vs. Addition of Brewers’ Alcohol
"Junmai" means pure, denoting that the sake contains no added brewers’ alcohol.
cf. “Honjozo” which means brewers’ alcohol was added, and at least 30% of each rice grain is milled away (a maximum of 70% of each rice grain remains).

The addition of brewers’ alcohol does quite the opposite of what it sounds like. It’s NOT like fortifying a wine like sherry. Rather, the brewers’ alcohol is added after fermentation but before it’s pressed on the lees, and then water is later added to bring down the alcohol content. We tend to think of added alcohol rendering something boozy. With sake, however, the addition of brewers’ alcohol makes a sake smoother, gentler, cleaner and more refreshing. The brewers’ alcohol tempers the sakes a bit, rounding out the edges and giving it a more balanced refined flavor. Adding brewers’ alcohol also has the advantage of helping storage/longevity and adding to the aroma.

So,

  • “Ginjo” it means at least 40% has been milled away but it may contain added brewers’ alcohol.
  • “Junmai ginjo” means at least 40% has been milled away but it does not contain any added brewers’ alcohol.
  • “Daiginjo” means at least 50% has been illed away but it may contain added brewers’ alcohol.
  • “Junmai daiginjo” means at least 50% has been milled away but it does not contain any added brewers’ alcohol.

Junmais are heavier, fuller-bodied, stronger, more acidic. Friendlier for a wider variety of food.
If it doesn’t say “junmai,” then some brewers’ alcohol has been added.

Sake-Producing Regions
Here, I’m borrowing from a recent article called “Against the Grain” by W. Blake Gray:

It’s said that water - not rice - accounts for most of the differences between regional tastes. Note that many sake breweries use the same rice variety (often “yamada nishiki,” discussed below). However, the concept of “terroir” is not as important to sake as it is with wine. Sake breweries were not necessarily established on sites where rice quality was grown, but rather where fermentation could best take place in cold winters.

Hiroshima - "Produces a medium-to-full-bodied style, slightly softer than Hyogo"
Hyogo - "The biggest sake-producing prefecture, responsible for a third of the total. Dry, muscular sakes"
Kyoto - "Soft water leads to sakes that are lightly sweet and gentle"
Niigata - "The most famous region for dry, clean premium sakes"
Yamagata - “A hotbed of flavorful kimoto and yamahai sakes”

Sake Rice Varieties:
Again, borrowing from W. Blake Gray’s article “Against the Grain”

Dewasansan - "Often creates a fruity, complex sake"
Gohyakumangoku - "Produces a fragrant, tropical, wine-like sake"
Omachi - "Earthy, less fragrant. Often found in junmai to be drunk at room temperature or warm."
Miyama Nishiki - "Usually used in drier sakes; the end product has more flavor"
Yamada Nishiki - “The Cabernet Sauvignon of sake rice, in terms of both its high quality and ubiquity”

Other Terminology
"Genshu" = “cask strength” (no water added). ~20% alcohol
"Koshu" = aged
"Nama" = “unpasteurized”
“Nigori” = “cloudy” w/ added pressed rice
"Nihonshudo" aka “SMV” (“Sake Meter Value”) = approximation of sweetness, ranging between -3 and +20 (the higher = drier). Neutral is ~ +3.
“Yamahai” = style of sake made through traditional method of adding natural lactic bacteria. Result is more intense and bigger umami.

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