Both across Japan and around the world, sake is booming—and for good reason. With more varieties of delicious sake to savor than ever before, there’s no better time to get into Japan’s national beverage. And yet, for the same reason, the world of sake can be intimidating to the newcomer.
Where should I go to drink sake? What sake should I order? What makes sake so special, anyway? If you’ve ever wondered about things like this, you’re in luck! Today, sake aficionado John Townsend—winner of the 2018 Mister Sake Competition—is here to share everything you need to know to get into sake for yourself.
Believe it or not, some people—including many Japanese—have a negative impression of sake, associating it with a distinctively strong smell of alcohol that pierces the nose. If this is the case for you, it’s likely that your only sake experience was probably a sake cup from your nearby convenience store, or off-brand sake ordered at a chain izakaya (Japanese pub). But in fact, there are countless types of sake out there just waiting to be discovered.
Despite being made from only rice and water (along with koji mold and yeast used for the fermentation process—but that’s a story for another time), sake offers an incredible range of flavor profiles to enjoy. Depending on your taste, you can savor heavily aromatic sake with tropical or floral notes, to rich, full-bodied brews that feature the deep umami of rice. Delight in freshly pressed, cloudy, sparkling sake, or sip on a finely aged brew with a caramel color and sublimely complex taste. Setting aside those who are allergic to alcohol, it would be no exaggeration to say that there truly is a sake for everyone.
It’s not just all the varieties and flavors that make sake so incredible—it’s the near-limitless ways in which it can be enjoyed. Take temperature, for one. You can enjoy a refreshing chilled sake on a hot and humid summer’s day, sip on a room temperature bottle for hours under the cherry blossoms in spring, or warm your body and soul with a cup of heated sake in the chill of winter. Depending on the variety of sake, heating sake (called “kan” or “o-kan” in Japanese) can often reveal and release flavors you’d never have imagined. (If you’re unsure about recommended serving temperatures for a particular sake, feel free to ask the restaurant or liquor sake where you find it.) With so many different ways to enjoy it, sake truly is a drink for all seasons and all scenes of life.
All sake fans are likely to agree on one thing—though sake can be enjoyed on its own, it truly shines when paired with tasty morsels of food. Food and sake together highlight and draw out each other’s flavors, making for a truly divine dining experience. So what dishes go best with sake? If your first thought is “Japanese food, of course!” then you’re not entirely wrong—but it’s hardly the whole story. While certain types of sake pair wonderfully with sushi, sashimi, or grilled fish, you’ll also find brews that are the perfect companion for cheese, and others that make an ideal match for spicy ethnic fare—and everything in between. Look around these days, and you’ll find traditional sake bars alongside restaurants pairing sake with French and Italian cuisine, Thai eateries with full-page sake menus, and other unique and distinctive establishments.
With so many places to enjoy sake these days, it’s easy enough to hop on the internet and track down a sake bar near you. To give you a head start, here are two establishments in Tokyo that are particularly friendly to the sake newcomer.
But there’s only so much you can learn about sake just by reading—so why not go out and experience it for yourself? An encounter with your own sake soulmate might be just around the corner!
In future installments, John “Mister Sake” Townsend will return to share more stories and insights from the deep and fascinating world of sake, so please stay tuned.
Until next time, take care—and kanpai! (“Cheers!”)