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Workshop - Level One

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Sake Workshop - Level OneThe Basics
What's Sake, Buying Tips
Serving Sake, Storing Sake

Fine sake is similar to wine in its potential for serious gourmet appreciation. Subtler and less in-your-face than wine, there are a myriad of flavor profiles and styles. Just what does this rice-based brew taste like? Well, it's hard to describe if you haven't had it, but it can range from bone -dry, light and crisp to heavy and slightly sweet. Often fruity essences dominate, other times rice-based, grainy flavors are prevalent. Overall it is lighter than white wine, more delicate and less fragrant.

From a production standpoint, sake is actually closer to being a beer than a wine, as sake is brewed (not simply fermented) from the grain called rice. The alcohol content is usually about 15% to 17%. It takes one to two months to brew, and is usually allowed to age about six months before shipping -- sometimes longer.

Grain-brew though it may be, sake should be approached and assessed as a wine. Note the color -- it should be clear or pale straw in color. Good sake will have a decent luster to it. Sniff it; some sake is fragrant and fruity, other sake is more rice-like and herbal or vegetal in the nose. Some sake has almost no fragrance at all. All are perfectly acceptable, depending on the region from which the sake comes. What is not acceptable is paper, rubber, and other strange smells.

Top of PageWhen buying sake at a restaurant or retail shop, avoid old sake. Look for sake less than twelve months old (except, of course, the deliberately aged sake known as Koshu, which appears somewhat brownish or yellowish in color). The fresher the sake the better. Generally speaking, premium sake should be chilled rather than warmed when it is served. If you must warm your sake, avoid warming it any higher than about 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).

Sip the sake. Check for balance and the absence of off-flavors. Note the acidity, body, mouth feel, impact and tail. And most importantly, note if it appeals to you personally. It's that simple in the end.

Premium sake should be stored carefully. The best method is refrigeration, but cool temperatures (10C to 15C, or 50F to 60F) are acceptable. Avoid direct strong light. Do this and the sake will keep its original flavor for six months or so.

This is not to say that sake is not aged; it can be. Although this is a whole other topic of discussion, aging sake is possible and the results can be wonderful. Sake is always changing in the bottle, and matures as it goes along. And indeed, there is a right time to drink each sake, and brewers try to ship sake just as it reaches this point.
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Many brewers do age their sake, but under controlled conditions. Aging sake is not an exact science, and if you want to taste the sake just as the craftsmen who brewed it intended it to taste, drink it sooner rather than later.

Once opened, a bottle of sake, like a bottle of wine, should be consumed as soon as possible. A few days after opening, you will see a degradation in the flavor of most sake. It won't hurt you, but it will lose its fine edge.

Drink your sake from a simple tumbler with a wide mouth. A wine glass will also work wonderfully. In Japan, sake is usually drunk from small cups or slightly larger (5.5 oz) tumblers. Japan has a rich pottery tradition, and often beautiful pottery ware is considered optimal for sake drinking. Click here for more on sake drinking utensils. Click here for tips of serving etiquette.

Historically and culturally, sake is very closely tied in with almost all rituals and ceremonies, from weddings to construction (in the latter case, the ground is dedicated before building begins). Sake is also closely tied to Japan's indigenous religion Shinto, and is found on the Top of Pagealtar of Shinto shrines everywhere.

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