How to Enjoy Sake?

If you live outside of Japan, and your exposure to sake is limited to your average local sushi restaurant, then it’s possible sake has been underwhelming.   First impressions are important.  Many restaurants outside of Japan carry very inexpensive sake, and often serve it very hot.  As a result many people are left with the impression that sake is supposed to served hot, and it is very strong.  Cheap sake is rough and astringent, leaving many with the misconception that sake is very high in alcohol and leaves an awful hangover.


The alcohol content for most sake is usually in the 15-17% range, not much different than some California Zinfandel wines.  As for hangovers, alcohol should be enjoyed in moderation.  But sake contains fewer additives and chemicals than wine, and is usually more forgiving the next day.


In general, most quality sake is enjoyed served slightly chilled.  Sake is a wonderfully versatile beverage.  Not only can sake be enjoyed at different temperatures, but the flavor profile and aromas can change or be enhanced depending if serving chilled, room temperature or warm.  It is good to experiment with temperature.  However, extreme hot or extreme cold will inhibit the ability to enjoy the flavors and aromas of sake.   There are no rules.  A good approach when first exploring sake, is to start with quality sake at a slightly chilled temperature.  From there it can be fun to experiment.


Interestingly, glassware and vessels for sake can have a profound impact to the enjoyment of sake.  The small sake cup is called an ochoko.  They come in many interesting shapes, and designs.  The rounded flask is called a tokkuri.  Why is the sake cup so small?  There is a tradition in japan that guests do not pour their own drink.  When enjoying sake with friends, each are mindful to pour for one another.  If pouring for sake for a guest, it is polite to use two hands to hold the tokkuri when pouring.  Likewise, if someone is offering to refill your cup, it is polite hold your cup in one hand while resting the bottom of the cup while resting the bottom of the cup on the palm of your other hand. Sake can be fun and does not need to be formal.  But pouring for each other in the ochoko sized cup helps foster the social experience of sake?


The ceramic ochokos and tokkuris work best for warm sake.  Chilled sake is best enjoyed in ochoko glassware.  Recently stemware and wine glasses have been used for premium sake.  While it is not that popular in Japan, the small and narrow Reisling style white wine glass tend to enhance the aromas of premium sake.


Finally enjoying sake with food has many options beyond just sushi.  Again, sake is a very versatile beverage.  It can pair with western style cuisines as well.  Sake can pair well with by matching it with similar style foods (rice based), and it can also work well as a contrasting style to foods.  For example, an oily fish or fried food can pair well with a contrasting style of an acidic dry sake.  Sake can go exceptionally well with cheese too.  Particularly, some hard salty cheeses, like an aged pecorino.  Grilled meats, grilled fish and stews also work well with sake.


Sake is versatile and delicious beverage that can be enjoyed many ways.  Discover your own favorite way and relish the benefits of this beverage that is like no other in the world.