Serving & appreciating sake
Words by Simon Difford & Antony Moss
Arguably Japan's most famous drink, sake even boasts its own official day, the 1st October, to celebrate the start of the production season. Commonly referred to as a ‘rice-wine’, sake is fabulous with fish, sushi and salty snacks. It is also phenomenal in cocktails and pairs well with any spirit.
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 should be stored in a cool place out of direct sunlight and generally drunk within a year of being bottled - the sooner it's enjoyed after bottling, the better. Pasteurised sake does not 'spoil', but it is likely to become discoloured, stale and oxidised if kept for too long.
Sake does not throw a sediment and therefore does not require decanting. Once opened, sake should be drunk as soon as possible, though it tends to last longer than wine. Most open bottles of sake will last one to two weeks if refrigerated.
Many of the US breweries (particularly SakeOne in Oregon and Takara in in California) make sakes that are infused with flavours such as raspberry and pear. In Japan there are traditional drinks made with ume plums or yuzu citrus fruits, though these are not legally sake.
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.