Serving & appreciating sake
Words by Simon Difford
Although sake is brewed like a beer it is consumed like a wine so is often referred to as a 'rice-wine'. Sake is traditionally served with fish, sushi and salty snacks but various styles of sake pairs with other foods in place of wine. Sake is also phenomenal in cocktails where it pairs well with any spirit and sits brilliantly alongside vermouth.
Sake is delicate and extremely sensitive to light and heat so should be stored in a cool, dark place. Ideally, sake drunk within a year of being bottling - the sooner the better it will be. Pasteurised sake does not 'spoil', but it is likely to become discoloured, stale and oxidised if kept for too long.
Sake does not throw sediment and therefore does not require decanting.
Once opened, sake is less prone to oxidation than wine so a bottle can be opened, resealed and refrigerated to be enjoyed over several days, perhaps one to two weeks. However, if you are able to stop oxygen coming into contact with the sake by use of a vacuum or inert gas then the sake will stay fresher for longer. Either way, it should be refrigerated.
There is a long tradition of drinking sake warm - especially in wintertime. However, since the 1920s, advances in brewing technology, improved yeast strains and the use of stainless steel have created sakes that are so delicate, they may actually be damaged by heat. Most premium sakes with a rice milled to less than 60% of its original size should be drunk chilled to best appreciate their subtle flavours (unless the brewer states otherwise on the label). However, many of the more robust Junmai styles can be delicious when served warm, especially if kimoto or yamahai methods have been used to enhance their acidity and depth. The warmth enhances acidity, body and intensity.
Sake is traditionally served in Japan to celebrate seasonal holidays or special events from a porcelain flask ('tokkuri') and small earthenware cups (o-choko) or wooden boxes (masu). Japanese sake etiquette can appear complex, but most Japanese are also very understanding of outsiders' mistakes. Generally, you should not pour your own sake - although you should pour for others and lift your cup when someone pours for you. And you should generally not refuse a drink if your host is still drinking and offers you one. To indicate you've had enough, you should turn your cup over.
Many of the aromas and flavours that are often found in sake are a result of the yeast and fermentation. These include a range of yeast-generated fresh fruit flavours, particularly red and green apples, pears, strawberries, bananas, melon, peach and Muscat grapes. Other notes include herbal, grassy and nutty elements, as well as the inevitable cooked rice range.
Sake also has sweet and sour notes, though the general level of acidity is much lower than that of wine. The finish can vary dramatically in its length. While long, complex finishes are desirable in some styles (especially robust junmai and some aged styles), other sakes are brewed to have a short clean finish that takes great skill to achieve.
Traditional measures of sake
The size of vessels in which sake is served, through to the size of the bottles it is sold in, and even the size of the stainless-steel tanks it is stored, in are rooted tradition. The size of all these vessels is a multiple of the capacity of a masu, the small cedar box that was originally used to measure rice and used as a currency with which to pay taxes. This measuring vessel was and is still used as a drinking vessel, originally by those who could not afford glasses.
Two-go ni gō = 360ml (2 x 180ml masu) flagon
Four-go (ichi gō) = 720ml (4 x 180ml masu) modern bottle
Sho (isshōbin) = 1,800ml (10 x 180ml masu) traditional bottle
To = 18 litre cedar barrel taruzake (10 x shō = one to)
Koku = 180 litre stainless steel tank (10 x to = one koto). One koto is the same as 100 isshōbin bottles and is the unit used to measure production volume of sake breweries. (In the same way that brewery barrels is the traditional measure for British beer breweries.)