A Starter Course in Sake

October 1st is Sake Day! Celebrate by learning about this tasty and versatile fermented rice drink

October 1st is Sake Day! Celebrate by learning about this tasty and versatile fermented rice drink


When you think “sake,” you most likely think Japanese food, particularly sushi, tempura and other Japanese dishes. However, sake is one of the most food-friendly companions. In fact, it’s a common belief among foodies that “sake does not fight with food”. It is not restricted by tannic expressions or too much acidity. Its lighter elegance accompanies food but never overpowers it, making it the perfect accompaniment with any type of cuisine.

Before we get into some food pairing suggestions, let’s review the basics. Sake is made of four essential ingredients: rice, k?ji (a rice mould), yeast and water. While sake may have originated in China, it was perfected in Japan. Traditionally warm sake was enjoyed in the cooler months in an effort to warm both “body and soul.” However, that practice evolved when a new refined style of sake emerged with the invention of the rice-polishing machine after WW2. These new sakes were called ‘ginjo’ sake. They were more elegant and refined. Consumers preferred to sip on these chilled, protecting their delicate aromas and flavours.

To understand the differences between various sake styles, it’s important to note two things: the polishing ratio and the meaning of “Junmai”.

Polishing ratio: Premium Japanese sake or Nihon-shu is made from polished rice. The outer surface of the grain is “polished” to remove minerals, fats and peptides, which can create undesirable off-flavours. The more the outer surface is polished away, the closer it gets to its starchy core, called “shinpaku.” This is where all the magic of sake resides.

The number depicted on a sake label is the percentage of the rice grain remaining after polishing. Therefore a polishing ratio of 40 per cent would mean that 60 per cent of that grain was polished away.

Junmai: Distilled alcohol is often added to sake. While this can be done for commercial reasons, distilled alcohol is also often added to enhance the delicate aromas of some premium sakes. Those that do not have distilled alcohol added are called ‘Junmai,’ which means ‘pure rice.’

Now that we have that bit covered, it will be a lot easier to comprehend this “must-know” list of sake styles. There are four essential grades of sake…

1. Futsushu

This is the basic entry-level sake. The polishing ratio can be lower than 70 per cent, meaning only 30 per cent or less of each rice grain in that sake is polished away. Distilled alcohol and flavours may be added in this style of sake. Pair it with a Montreal smoked-meat sandwich, ramen or a spicy Shawarma; preferably serve it warm (up to 55°C), or at room temperature.


2. Honjozo and Junmai

Now we’re standing at the basecamp of premium sake. To be a Honjozo, the rice must have a polishing ratio of at least 70 per cent, which means it is essential that at least 30 per cent or more of each grain gets polished away.

To be a Junmai, not only does this style require the same polishing ratio requirements of a Honjozo, it cannot have any distilled alcohol added to the final sake.

Both of these styles tend to be fuller bodied and display delicious, savoury notes of umami, with high acidity. They show tell-tale flavours of their primary ingredient: rice, with grain and cereal notes such as congee or porridge. They can often also display lactic notes along with fennel, stewed fruit or preserved vegetables. This makes them great partners with umami-rich dishes like: tuna tataki, fried dishes like fish-n-chips or even a bowl of comforting spaghetti Bolognese! A Honjozo or Junmai can be enjoyed warm (up to 55°C), at room temperature or chilled.


4. Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo

The polishing ratio for Ginjo sake cannot be less than 60 per cent. This means, at least 40 per cent or more of each rice grain needs to be polished away.

The criteria for a Junmai Ginjo is identical to a Ginjo, except that it cannot have any distilled alcohol added to the final sake.

Ginjo sakes show elegance and finesse in their aroma and flavour profiles. Crisp orchard fruit and wafting herbs dominate this sake’s expression. It is excellent paired with dim sum, or flavour-rich dishes of Indian, Malaysian and Thai cuisine, or even Moroccan and Mediterranean menus for that matter. Ginjo sake is often served cool, but it does seem to show its best when served at just above body temperatureabout 40°C.


5. Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo

We’re now at the pinnacle of premium sake. The polishing ratio of a Daiginjo commands an impressive 50 per cent. Therefore at least half, if not more of each grain needs to be polished away.

As for a Junmai Daiginjo…you got it. No distilled alcohol has been added to this premium sake.

Daiginjo sakes are the epitome of grace, balance and purity. They tend to be lighter bodied, with lower acidity, but with a mouth-feel that is silky smooth. You’ll taste hints of banana, crisp apple, fennel, and lychee amongst others. While some sake savants experiment with warming Daiginjo sake to various degrees of success, it is best served chilled. However, serving it at room temperature can be delightful too. Try it with a silky fillet of sablefish or even an exotically aromatic Indian Chicken Biryani or Persian Zereshk Polo Murgh (barberry rice and chicken).


While this list covers the main camps, there are several other styles of sake. Some such popular styles are:

  • Nigori: This is a coarsely filtered sake.
  • Genshu: Remember Junmai where no distilled alcohol is added to the final sake? Here, no water is added to the final cut.
  • Nama: Unpasteurized sake
  • Koshu: Aged sake

Regardless of what sake you have before you, I recommend you start experimenting with your sake and food pairings. You could be surprised at how well sakes go with not only Japanese food, but even some of your very own culinary favourites!

As they say in Japan, “Kampai!”