Best sake for cooking and drinking reviewed with buying guide

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  August 8, 2022

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It might sound surprising, but you can find great sake in Walmart!

So you don’t even need to visit a Japanese market to get it, although we do recommend it to get the best sake you’ll ever taste.

Best cooking sake brands

Sake is fermented from four basic ingredients: water, rice, a microbe called koji, and yeast. Brewing just the right batch of sake takes skill, precision, and patience.

Favorite Asian Recipes
Favorite Asian Recipes

My advice: use drinking sake for cooking

You don’t have to buy an expensive sake for cooking though, just as you wouldn’t buy expensive wine just to cook with.

My favorite sakes are Takara Masamune Sake and Tozai Sake Well Of Wisdom.

You’ll notice both of these are drinkable sake, but that’s because I always advise using drinkable sake in your recipes, even if you’re just going to cook with it.

Best cooking and drinking sakeImage
Best drinking sake overall: Otokoyama “Tokubetsu Junmai”
Best fruity driking sake: Nanbu Bijin “Plum Sake”
Best unfiltered nigori: Hakutsuru “Sayuri”
Best cooking sake overall: Kikkoman Ryorishi
Best budget cooking sake: Yutaka
Best premium cooking sake: Hinode

Sake buyer’s guide

When it comes to buying sake, there’s a lot of confusion, especially among non-Japanese people.

In fact, picking the best sake is no easy task.

The main problem people encounter is the language barrier – reading sake labels and understanding sake terminology is not something you learn overnight.

There are many types of sake, but hopefully, this guide will instruct you on how to search and find good sake.

Read the label

Ok, this is a bit of a tough one because sake bottles are known for being full of very hard-to-read kanji calligraphy (one of the 3 Japanese scripts/ideograms).

But the most important thing to keep in mind is that drinkable sake is labeled as NIHONSHU. Don’t mistake it for shochu, which is a different drink and a Japanese hard liquor.

First, look at the name of the sake which is usually in Kanji lettering.

Some modern breweries are also adding the names in romaji lettering which means that the Japanese sounds are represented in roman characters.

Next, check out the name of the brewery. There are some famous breweries such as Otokoyama, Suehiro, or Sawanoi.

Look for the make of the sake or the type i.e light, dry, etc.

Bottling date: the sake should be no older than 1 year (unless it’s a specialty product).

Ingredients: high-quality sake is only made from a select few base ingredients like rice, kome koji, and brewing alcohol.

Check the rice polishing ratio which determines whether the sake is table sake (futsushu & over 70% polishing) or specially designated (tokutei meishoshu & less than 60% polishing grade).

Futsushu is the cheapest type of sake and usually served at izakaya or informal bars and cheaper restaurants.

The designated stuff, like ginjo and daiginjo is much more expensive.

Which to buy

For beginners, I recommend sweet amakuchi sake because it has similar characteristics and acidity to regular white wine.

I also recommend futsushu, especially warm sake. These will help you get accustomed to the taste of rice beverages. You can then try the dryer sakes like ginjo.

If you aren’t a big fan of the rice flavored drinks, try fruity varieties.

For those who want to taste original sake, nigori, and namazakes, with about 15% ABV, are great options.

They are a cloudy sake with a milky appearance and closely resemble how sake used to be way back in the day.

The dry sake like Karakuchi has the harshest rice flavor.

Also check out my review of the best sake warmers to create the optimal sake experience

Best drinking sake brands

We’ve had great results with the Takara brand. Depending on how you might want to spice things up on your meal, you could use the Takara Masamune Sake:

Takara Masamune Sake

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For more flavor you could use this flavored Takara Hana Apple Sake:

flavored Takara Hana Apple Sake

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You also can’t go wrong with the Tozai Sake Well Of Wisdom:

Tozai Sake Tozai Well Of Wisdom

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However, the absolute best cooking sake in our opinion is the Sho Chiku Bai Sake:

Sho Chiku Bai Sake

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You can get the 750ml version or the small version. This sake is also very affordable so you won’t mind testing with the bigger bottle.

Best Overall: Otokoyama “Tokubetsu Junmai”

This is the top pick when it comes to sake because it’s one of Japan’s best-loved sakes, and it’s not harsh when it comes to rice flavor. Brewed in the Hokkaido prefecture, this sake has a strong 5-star rating, and the brewery has been around since 1661, so it’s a traditional must-try drink.

It’s a dry Junmai sake, commonly served at most izakaya bars. Known for its full-bodied flavors and hints of plum and dried fruit, this sake is the perfect pair for sushi and sashimi, so you can expect to find it at the top of the menu in sushi restaurants.

While it’s a dry sake, it doesn’t lack in sweetness. It has a velvety texture that’s light on the tongue yet full of flavor. It has an alcohol content of 15%. Even first-time sake drinkers will love the light and earthy characteristics of this popular sake.

Best Fruity Sake: Nanbu Bijin “Plum Sake”

This is one of the best naturally sweet sakes. It has a rich and sweet ume plum flavor but without added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Some plums have a strong tart taste, but ume plums are naturally sweet, so this sake maintains a fruity, light, and sweet taste. Therefore, it’s best suited for people who want fruitiness instead of a strong rice flavor.

The sake has a low alcohol content of about 8% and compared to other sake varieties, it’s not as strong, so it’s perfect for light drinkers too. I recommend this sake because it’s very versatile. Since it has a high acidity, it pairs well with almost all meals, especially meaty recipes. It’s a great sake to serve cold or on-the-rocks and even add into cocktails.

Best Unfiltered Nigori: Hakutsuru “Sayuri”

You can’t say you’ve had sake until your try a traditional unfiltered Nigori. Brewed in the Hiyogo prefecture, this sake will delight your taste buds. The drink is bottled in a pretty pink frosted glass bottle, and it makes a great gift idea. It’s rich and sweet but has a certain creaminess since it’s unfiltered. It has a higher alcohol content than Nanbu Bijin, but at 12.5%, it’s lower than Tokubetsu Junmai.

The sake has a creamy texture and creamy, milky color. Don’t expect a strong rice flavor because this one has a fruity strawberry and some floral notes. It’s the perfect light brew for fish and lean meats. I recommend serving this particular sake cold as it brings out all the subtle flavors, and the creaminess will make you feel like you’re drinking a premium luxury drink when in fact, it costs less than $20 per bottle.

Best cooking sake brands

Understanding the difference between drinkable and cooking sake, it would be better to just opt for cooking sake if you only plan to use a little and want to spend less.

But which brand of Ryorishu is best to try? Here is what we recommend:

Kikkoman

Kikkoman Ryorishi cooking sake

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An old Japanese company, Kikkoman, has been famous for its distinct products of Japanese condiments and cooking ingredients such as soy sauce and tempura batter.

Undoubtedly, they also provide high-quality Ryorishi. The brand is popular worldwide, so it must be easy to find in the US.

Kikkoman Cooking Sake has an alcohol content of 13%.

Per 100 grams, this Ryorishi contains 2.7 grams of salt and 17 grams of carbohydrate, with about 2.5 grams of it coming from sugar.

The total energy for this portion is 446kJ/106kcal.

Check it out here on Amazon

Yutaka

Yutaka cooking sake

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Although Ryorishi originated from Japan, Yutaka Cooking Sake is a product of China. Even so, it has an authentic flavor of Japanese cuisine.

The brand is notable for various foods and ingredients of Japanese cuisine.

The alcoholic content of the Yutaka Cooking Sake is about 13.5%. The total energy contained in 100 grams of this liquid is only 91kJ/ 21kcal.

This cooking sake also contains less than 0.1 grams of salt and 5 grams of carbohydrate, with about 3.2 grams of them being sugar.

Check the latest prices and availability here

Hinode

Hinode Ryorishu Junryou Cooking Sake

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Hinode is one of the most loved brands of cooking sake in Japan, so you might want to consider trying out this one as well.

This Japanese company is an expert in delivering many kinds of high-quality Mirin and Sake, including cooking sake.

Hinode Ryorishu has an ABV of 13-14%, which is similar to other cooking sake brands. Per a portion of 100 ml, this liquid contains 347kj/83kcal of energy.

There are also 2.1 grams of salt and 1.5 grams of carbohydrates without any sugar content.

Check the lowest prices here

Using sake in your meals

There are two ways to pair sake with food. One, as mentioned above, you can serve the sake as a condiment beverage for a meal.

Somehow, many kinds of dishes will taste even better if you eat them alongside drinking sake. The tastes complement each other.

Almost any type of sake can pair well with any kind of food. But some pairs are much more enjoyable and popular.

For example, sushi and sashimi will go perfectly with Junmai Daiginjo sake. Fatty meals like yakitori can be paired with dry Junmai Ginjo.

Not only Japanese food. You can also drink sake to complement dishes from other countries.

  • For example, pizza would go well with Honjozo or even Futsushu sake.
  • Beefsteak and any other fatty meals, like yakitori, can pair perfectly with Junmao Ginjo.

Honeydew, cantaloupes, peach, tropical fruits, minerals, dirt, green apples, coconut, and anise are popular sake aromas.

If your meal is enriched by these aromas (think tropical fruit salsa on grilled chicken), then the sake and food will fit together well.

You’ll taste flavors similar to some of the aromas you’ve encountered, but not necessarily all.

The simple tastes your tongue is able to identify are sour, sweet, bitter, and salty.

Needless to say, sake has no salt and should not be bitter. But the palette often notices tropical spices, minerals, coconut, earthiness, and, of course, rich creamy sake rice.

Sakes infused with fruit should have aromas and flavors which are true to their particular infusion. Ideally, the taste will linger.

A long finish is a good indication of high-quality sake.

What recipes can I make with sake?

If you got your hands on some authentic sake and are looking to try it out, here are some great recipes to try:

Can you get drunk from eating food cooked with sake?

Sake is a cooking wine and contains alcohol.

However, if it is cooked in a dish, the alcohol evaporates and leaves just the flavor. You can’t get drunk from eating food cooked with sake or mirin.

You can get drunk from drinking sake. Drinkable sake has alcohol contents high enough to get you drunk.

Make sure you add sake to your dish early on so that the alcohol evaporates.

Takeaway

Sake is a staple ingredient in Japanese culture.

If you are looking to cook authentic Japanese dishes, you need to get your hands on sake

Can’t find or don’t want to use sake? Here are the 10 best sake substitutes that I can recommend

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Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.