Whether you've visited an authentic Izakaya in Japan or just the local sushi bar, you probably know about sake.
But you might have just a passing relationship with the exotic drink. We took a good look at some of the best sake brands to help you make an informed decision. The next time you find sake on the menu, we want you to have even more information. Because chances are, even if you’ve experienced the ritual of enjoying sake dozens of times, you’re still learning. Before we start naming names, let’s take a step back and explore the roots of this elusive elixir.
All About Sake
With most spirits, we can mention a variety and everyone has the same idea of what we’re talking about. When you hear ‘vodka,’ for instance, you picture the clear liquor at the heart of so many cocktails. Sure, there is a range of potency, flavors and quality. But at the end of the day, everyone can pretty much agree on a standard fermentation process. That is not the same for sake. While Westerners might think they know what this drink is after trying it at teppanyaki restaurant, others would disagree.
What is sake?
If we’re going to start at the basics, let’s try to settle on a definition. But even there, things start to get tricky. As it turns out, Japanese citizens often do not differentiate what we call sake from other types of alcohol. In fact, ‘sake’ is regularly used to refer to all spirits. For those of us to whom sake is a foreign word, however, the standard definition is much more precise. And for our purposes, we are going to stick to the latter.
You probably think of a fermented rice beverage available in Japanese restaurants across the English speaking world. If you were wondering, this type of alcoholic drink is nihonshu, or “Japanese alcohol,” by locals.
Where does it originate from?
The short answer, of course, is Japan. But the rich history of this iconic drink might be a bit more complicated than you thought. First of all, the spirit dates back more than two millennia and has been an important part of Japanese culture ever since. The first traces of what was called the ‘drink of the gods’ date back to at least 300 B.C. Some legends place the true origin to as much as 6,000 years ago.
What really led to its wide dissemination, though, was a refined process of polishing the rice kernels. This is a vital step in making sake and as it became more mechanized, the drink could be produced more efficiently. In the earliest days, polishers used the rudimentary process of chewing rice and nuts before spitting what was left in a tub. That process sped up significantly after the discovery of enzymes that replicated that process.
It became Japan’s most important national drink starting around the 14th century. Since then, it is served widely at celebrations such as weddings and other communal gatherings. Tons of fascinating tall tales surround the drink. And in recent decades, the tradition has continued to spread widely around the world.
How is it made?
While the process has become infinitely more refined, the foundations of creating sake are basically the same as ever. First of all, some sort of press is used to remove the liquid from a mixture of koji, yeast, and the rice mash. During shortages of the rice needed, such as in World War II, some innovative brewers have used substitutes. Among the most common replacements for the mash are sugar and just plain old alcohol.
Since this new process can be more consistent and cheaper, you can easily find this version on sale worldwide. But many purists prefer the traditional method, which is why you can also find the original for sale in a variety of locations.
How is it served?
You might be familiar with the popular method of warming sake before serving it. This is a Western favorite and is also popular among those who grew up around the alcoholic drink. There are some varieties that simply taste better cold, though. Or at least that’s what some afficianadoes say. And that is the fun part of experimenting with sake.
There is no right or wrong way to enjoy it. Sure, there are some types that are traditionally served warm and others that are mostly chilled. But in the end, it’s up to you. And no self respecting server will chide you for ordering it the way you want it. If you’re not sure, though, ask for a recommendation. Additionally, whatever you do, try to stay away from serving it either too hot or too cold. As in the amount you choose to imbibe, warm or cool your sake in moderation.
In addition to temperature, there is another primary decision to make. Serving the best sake also involves choosing the right container. While a shot or rocks glass is an easy way to serve most liquors, sake can be a bit trickier. You will find some experts who say glass lets the flavor speak for itself. But there are more traditional cups, known as ochoko or masu, which might make it more memorable.
What are the different types?
There are a few important variations among sake recipes. You might want to have a working understanding of these differences before you begin your quest for the best sake. Many of the varieties are notable for the level of polish the rise has. But on a broader level, they can be separated into to main categories.
First of all, there is junmai. This is for the purists. It literally translates to ‘pure rice,’ because that is precisely what it is. You will find inside a bottle of junmai sake only rice, water, yeast, and koji.
Then there are those bottles that are not labeled junmai. They will have additives, which does not mean they are not good or are less authentic. It is just a different style of preparing the sake and your palate might just prefer their enhanced flavors.
On a more granular level, there are tons of nuances between the different levels of polish. Most of them have their own name. But since you’re looking for the best sake and not an encyclopedic account, we will keep it simple.
Find the best sake to perfectly suit your taste, style and budget.
Add some Japanese flair to a gathering or just keep a bottle in your liquor cabinet. Whatever you decide to do, sake will bring a unique element to the event. But since there are so many varieties of this exotic drink, it can be intimidating to start searching. We have taken the liberty of surveying the market to find some of the best sake available. Here's hoping you find the perfect new addition to your spirit rotation. In the meantime, try out a few of our recommendations for "research" -- you can thank us later!
1. Dassai 23
This is a pleasant and refined sake. Asahi-shuzo brews this very popular blend known for its high milling. The 23 percent rate reflected in its name is also the highest milling level of any commercial sake. It has been described by tasters as a 'perfect' example of the drink. Enjoy the subtle and fruity notes of this meticulously blended spirit. Among the most prominent notes are those of melons and peaches. The long finish ensures the pleasing aromas and flavors will stick with you. Dassai's website declares that the company brews "sake for sipping," not for drinking or selling. And that attention to detail shows in every bottle and every batch.
2. Gekkeikan Haiku
Here is a U.S. produced sake that really goes down smoothly, especially compared to some other brands. The Gekkeikan Haiku is known as a Tokubetsu Junmai shu, or "special" sake blend. Rice mash for this particular drink is milled to 60 percent. The result is a light and refreshing flavor with a pleasing aroma. The fact that it is fermented at low temperatures also adds to the mild finish. This sake is produced in small batches and pairs well with light dishes like fish or chicken. Overarching notes of pear and apple add to the subtle complexities of its flavor. Beneath the surface, you can enjoy a number of herbal flavors the round out one the world's best sake recipes.
3. Kirinzan Daiginjo Karakuchi
If you are looking for one of the best sake blends to serve chilled, you should probably check out this variety. The Kirinzan Daiginjo Karakuchi is defined by a translucent color and smooth flavor. It is made from a rice mash known as koshitanrei and is polished much finer than others. At 45 percent, it has one of the highest polish ratios on the list. And its crisp, clean taste pairs it well with an iced or chilled service. A refreshing sake for most any situation, Kirinzan has produced a well rounded and high quality product. The 15 percent alcohol volume allows you to enjoy in moderation without losing your wits.
4. Kokuryu Ryu Daiginjo
Here is a refreshingly different daiginjo sake. We think it is one of the best sake choices for those who have experienced others. First of all, it includes a unique French process used to mature the wine. Even if you have tried other daiginjo sake brands, you will probably still find this variety inviting and sophisticated. You can immediately tell the difference in the fermentation process, which results in superb aromas and taste. It is understated but unmistakable. This is one of the drinks that does not have to impress you with any dazzling features. Instead, it has simply combined two incredible methods. That resulted in a daiginjo that surely ranks it among the best sake choices.
5. Otokoyama Kanshu
If you still haven't made up your mind, we suggest this one as an easy crowd pleaser. In fact, it might be a great choice for anyone who is still unsure about the whole sake craze. Because we think it belongs on the list of best sake brands for its overall composure. The mild, easy to drink flavor will fit within the range of almost anyone's tastes. It is a slow aged sake made in the kantsukuri style. A special honjozushu recipe and an extreme polish on the rice mash combine for a smooth finish. It has a 13 percent alcohol content and sweet aftertaste that will bring you back for more. The delicate, time consuming process leaves you with a very versatile drink. It is a sake that is made to be enjoyed either warm or chilled. And we think it is about the best sake in the world to make that claim.
6. Dassai Sparkling 39
We end our list where we began -- with a wonderful Dassai sake. This one is much different from the first, but with the same underlying attention to detail that made it so special. This is an unfiltered product that results in a cloudy appearance. And it a sparkling sake that presents a very smooth taste. The flavor retains pleasing fragrances, none of which are too potent or overpowering. It is not quite as polished as the Dassai 23. But with the rice mash milled to 39 percent, it is one of the most refined on the market. The bad news? It is currently only available in the United States and the United Kingdom.
We hope you enjoyed our introduction to the wonderful world of sake.
Now that you've seen what some of the best sake in the world has to offer, we hope you enjoy. The next time you are at a Japanese restaurant -- or actually touring Asia -- adding this knowledge will enhance your experience.
If you learned something about this exotic drink, consider sharing our article with your friends. And let us know what your favorite sake brand is in the comments section below.
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