For many of us who frequent Japanese restaurants, ordering sake can be somewhat intimidating. Sure, we know it’s a type of alcohol, but that’s about it. And with thousands of sakes to choose from, it can be confusing to know where to start.

We spoke with Michael Tremblay, Head National Sake Sommelier at Ki Modern Japanese + Bar who took us through a sake “flight” (a tasting of several different sakes) and gave us a crash course on this popular Japanese rice beverage.

What It Is

Sake, also known as rice wine, literally means “alcohol”. Sake is Japan’s national beverage, made of water, fermented rice and a special mold called koji (also used in soy and soju), which breaks down the starch of the rice into sugar. Yeast is then added (needed to turn the sugar into alcohol) and voila! — sake is made.

Similar to wine, there are many different varieties that can be paired together, creating countless type of sakes. From light, sparkling sake with fruity notes served cold, to earthier variations that are best served warm, there are a myriad of options for whatever your palate. As Tremblay says, “Like wine, there’s a sake for everyone.” He recommends experimenting and having some fun with sake, as there are no hard and fast rules. “Just drink it the way you like it best,” Tremblay says. Sakes are not just for pairing with Japanese food either — you can pair them with risottos, barbecued dishes and pizza.

In general, sakes compliment dishes without overpowering the flavours.

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Here are the basics to help you choose a sake you’ll love.

Sake Varieties

The grade of the sake is determined by the percentage of the outer husk of each grain of rice that’s milled away in the fermentation process. The more rice that’s milled away, the higher the grade.

In order of highest grade:

1. Daiginjo

Daiginjjo has more delicate and complex notes that tend to be on the fruitier side. This premier sake mills 50 percent of each grain of rice.

Best Served: Room temperature to chilled.

Best Paired With: Serve alone to appreciate the more delicate flavours or with lighter, milder food like seafood or chicken.

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Smoked salmon maki and hamachi and jalapeño from Ki which I enjoyed with a daiginjo sake, Wakatake Daiginjo Onikoroshi.

2. Ginjo

Ginjo sake is very fragrant and light. In Ginjo sake, the rice has been milled down to 40 percent, just less than Daiginjo.

Best Served: Room temperature to chilled.

Pair it With: Delicate, flavour-sensitive foods such as seafood or chicken.

3. Junmai

Junmai is a pure rice sake, with no additional alcohol added. Only about 30 percent of the rice is milled away, giving this grade of sake a more rich, acidic and full-bodied flavour. Junmai sakes tend to have notes of rice and porridge, making them more versatile with food.

Best Served: Room temperature to hot. To heat, boil some hot water and immerse a closed flask filled with sake into the hot water to warm it. Boiling  or microwaving sake is not recommended.

Pair It With: The bold flavours of this sake go well with savoury meat dishes such as roasts and stews. Oilier dishes go well with sakes with a higher acidity, while junmai sakes will pair with fried dishes.

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Pair savoury dishes like this pork belly with a warm junmai.

4. Honjozo

Honjozo also has the rice milled down to 70 percent and contains a little added brewer’s alcohol. Honjozo has a dry, smooth taste, slightly lighter and more fragrant than Junmai.

Best Served: Room temperature to warm.

Pair It With: Savoury foods with more kick or peppery flavours. Honjozo generally pairs well with Thai or Chinese dishes.

 

Learn more at Toronto’s annual sake festival, Kampai where you can sample 140 sakes from Japan and North America.