Sake: what is this amazing Japanese drink & how to use it

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  August 7, 2022

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Sake or saké (“sah-keh”) is an alcoholic beverage of Japanese origin that is made from fermented rice.

Sake is used to bring out the umami flavors in food and tenderize meat.

Sake has many uses in Japan, but do you know the difference between sake as a recreational alcoholic beverage and cooking sake?

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In this post I’ll go into the basics of sake for everyone who’s really new to the topic.

Sake- what is this amazing Japanese drink & how to use it

I’m going to explain what makes sake so unique, how to serve and drink it properly, and I’ll get into the difference between the sake served in restaurants and cooking sake.

Feel free to skip ahead to any section that interests you!

What is sake?

First, we need to discuss, what is sake precisely?

Sake, pronounced SAH-keh, is made by fermenting rice, clean water, koji mold, and yeast.

Sake is sometimes referred to in English-speaking countries as “rice wine“, but this is not quite correct.

Unlike wine, in which alcohol (ethanol) is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally present in grapes, sake is produced by a brewing process more like that of beer.

Traditionally, sake was served during special ceremonies.

But now it’s a regular alcoholic beverage and it’s poured from a tall flask called tokkuri and you drink it from small cups (sakazuri or o-choko).

During the brewing process, rice starch is converted to sugar for sake, then yeast converts sugar into alcohol.

A good sake quality lies in the quality of the rice and the water used for brewing.

The starch from the rice will turn into sugar, which will eventually ferment into alcohol. The alcohol by volume (ABV) content of sake is around 15-20%.

Japanese have their own rules and ethics in drinking sake, especially on formal occasions.

Even so, they also drink casually from time to time. Sometimes, sake is also served alongside food in a restaurant or at dinner.

But people also use sake for cooking a lot.

Different types of sake

Sake in Japanese just means alcohol, but the drinkable rice wine is known as nihonshu (日本酒). It’s made by fermenting rice with clean water, koji mold, and yeast.

  1. ordinary sake which encompasses most drinking sake
  2. special designation sake of which there are about 8 varieties. The designations reference the amount of polishing the rice undergoes. The more polished the rice is the greater purity and the higher grade the sake is. Junmai is an example of high-quality sake.
  3. Nama sake is unpasteurized sake that retains more of the flavor subtleties.
  4. Nigori which is unfiltered sake with a milky appearance.
  5. Finally you have cooking sake, or ryorishu, which contains 2-3% salt to make it unfit to drink so it can be sold in convenience stores.

Traditionally, there was no such thing as cooking sake in the world of authentic Japanese cuisine.

Japanese people use their Futsushu (I’ll get into the types of sake next) sake to cook, although they sometimes use the premium one for cooking a fancier meal.

Sake is an excellent drink to pair with common dishes like ramen, soba noodles, tempura, sushi, and sashimi.

Are sake and rice wine the same thing?

No, sake and rice wine are not the same things and this is what confuses many people. Sure, both sake and rice wine are made from rice but they are made differently.

Rice wine can be both distilled or fermented.

Sake, on the other hand, is only brewed and fermented like beer. To make sake, the rice grains are fermented with Koji mold. When making rice wine, the rice starch is converted into sugar.

What does sake taste like?

Sake has a smooth flavor, much like white wine. When you drink cold sake, it has a similar taste to dry white wine but with a hint of rice and nutty flavor.

If you drink hot sake, it has a similar flavor to light vodka. However, what makes sake unique is that it also has a slightly sweet and fruity flavor.

How strong is sake?

Not all sake has the same “strength” or alcohol by volume content. It really depends on the type of sake.

Sake has medium alcohol by volume content (ABV): between 15-22% for drinking sake and 13-14% for cooking sake. It’s not as strong as vodka, yet stronger than beer.

  • beer has a 3 -9% ABV
  • wine has 9-16% ABV
  • cooking sake 13-14%
  • strong sake: 18-22%
  • whiskey has 40%
  • vodka has 40%

Is sake considered a hard liquor?

No, sake is not considered to be a hard liquor because it only has a 15-22% alcohol by volume content. Hard liquor has a stronger ABV of 40% (like vodka).

Therefore, you can’t call sake hard liquor, even though it’s capable of making you very tipsy!

Origin of sake

Sake has been enjoyed for at least 1500 years, and it originates in China.

While there’s no exact date about the discovery of sake, around 500 BC, Chinese villagers discovered that if they spit chewed rice and left it to ferment using the natural enzymes from saliva, the rice fermented at a rapid rate.

This method was unsanitary and quite crude, so instead, other methods were discovered. Koji is a type of mold that is added to rice to begin the fermentation process.

The koji method spread throughout China and Japan, and in the Nara period (710-794), it officially became the best way to make sake.

The Japanese state was responsible for brewing sake up until the 10th century when monks began making this beverage at temples.

After a couple of centuries, sake became the most popular ceremonial drink.

During the Meiji period in the 19th century, the general population began to make sake and many breweries popped up.

Since then, sake has been a popular drink and to this day, it’s Japan’s national beverage.

What does the word sake mean?

In the Japanese language, the word “shu” (酒, “liquor”, pronounced shu) generally refers to any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called “sake” in English is usually termed nihonshu (日本酒, “Japanese liquor”).

Under Japanese liquor laws, sake is labelled with the word seishu (清酒, “clear liquor”), a synonym less commonly used colloquially.

There exists an unrelated word also pronounced sake, but written differently ( as 鮭), which means salmon.

How is sake made?

Sake is made using sakamai polished rice. Polished rice has a bright, shiny appearance and the rice they use for premium drinking sake is of high-quality.

Manufacturers use a brewing process similar to beer making.

They mix the rice with clean water, yeast, and a special Koji mold which is also used to ferment soy sauce.

The finest sake, called Genshu has an alcohol by volume value of 20% whereas other sakes usually have an ABV of 15%.

Is sake a beer or liquor?

Many people mistakenly think that sake is a wine, but it’s not a distilled alcohol or a spirit. Instead, it is brewed just like beer.

But really, it is a unique rice drink, so you shouldn’t call it beer either.

The brewing process for sake differs from the process for beer, in that for beer, the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol occurs in two discrete steps.

But when sake is brewed, these conversions occur simultaneously.

Furthermore, the alcohol content differs between sake, wine, and beer:

  • Wine generally contains 9%–16% ABV
  • Most beer contains 3%–9%
  • Undiluted sake contains 18%–20% (although this is often lowered to about 15% by diluting with water prior to bottling).

Does sake have a lot of sugar?

When you compare sake with other types of alcohol, sake contains more sugar.

It’s a relatively high sugar content but since sake also has a high alcohol content, you consume less of the sugar.

For example, if you enjoy a couple of pints of beer, you’re actually consuming more sugar from the beer than if you drink sake.

The good news is that sake has less sugar than most wine.

Does sake have a lot of carbs?

Sake has carbohydrates. And quite a lot of them compared to other alcoholic drinks like vodka which are carb-free.

Sake has a lot of sugar and therefore a lot of carbs. 6 ounces of sake has approximately 9 grams of carbs. If you’re on the keto diet or a weight loss program, skip the sake!

Is sake better for you than beer?

When it comes to consuming fewer calories, carbs, and fats, a drink like sake is a better option than beer.

Sure sake has more calories than beer but you drink a much smaller quantity of sake than you do beer in most cases.

Therefore, the less you drink, the fewer calories you consume. Sake is generally healthier than beer.

How to serve and drink sake

In Japan, where it is the national beverage, sake is often served with special ceremony- gently warmed in a small earthenware or porcelain bottle called a tokkuri, and sipped from a small porcelain cup called a sakazuki.

Hot vs. cold sake

You might’ve heard that sake can be served hot or cold.

The basic principle is that some cheap sake doesn’t taste as good as fine sake, so to mask the flavor, it’s served hot.

You’ll find warmed-up sake (atsukan) at sushi restaurants, bars, and cheaper restaurants. It’s one of those cheap types of alcohol that tastes good warm.

Truth is, when sake is heated, the off-notes are harder to taste so you think the drink tastes a bit better than it actually does. It’s a neat trick, right?

But, don’t mistake cheap sake for the premium stuff. The best quality sake is served cold /chilled so that you can taste the subtleties and flavors.

Cool temperatures of 45 degrees F or below make the sake’s flavor profiles come through so you can taste every small nuance.

At the end of the day though, it’s a matter of personal preference, but keep the sake at a temperature between 40 – 105 degrees F.

The reason why the Japanese love sake so much is because this drink complements the traditional flavors of many national dishes.

It’s the perfect pairing for an umami dish because it brings out the delicate flavors of the food, and the drink has a relatively mild taste and low alcohol content so it’s very enjoyable.

If you’re at a restaurant or sake bar, here’s what you’ll notice about sake service:

  • Fruity sake is most often served cold at around 50 degrees F
  • Aged and traditional sake is most often served hot between 107-115 F
  • Mild and delicate sake is usually served warm between 95 – 105 F.

Find the best sake warmers reviewed here for an optimal drinking experience

How to enjoy sake

As I mentioned already, sake is often served at restaurants and drinking establishments like izakaya (bars).

There are also some specialty sake bars but they’re less common these days.

Like wine, sake has various flavors and they’re all different in terms of taste and flavor complexity.

Sake can be sweet-ish (amakuchi), dry (karakuchi), or superdry (ch0-karakuchi).

When you’re at a bar or restaurant you’ll see a number listed beside the name of the sake. This number refers to the Sake Meter Value (nihonshudo). 

The scale goes from -15 (very sweet sake) to 0 (normal) and all the way up to +15 which is very dry sake.

You’ll find fresh sake and matured sake (koshu). Koshu has a much stronger and rougher taste which isn’t to everyone’s liking.

Mild and sweet sake is the most popular for everyday drinking.

Can I drink sake every day? Is it healthy?

As with all kinds of alcohol, it’s not a good idea to drink sake excessively.

Maybe have sake every day is a bit too much. However, sake is one of the healthiest alcoholic beverages.

Sake contains a lot of amino acids which help the body build protein and synthesize hormones. In addition, sake is gluten-free so most people can drink it.

Interestingly, sake also helps to clear skin because it inhibits excessive melanin production, which is why people get lots of dark spots.

There’s evidence that drinking sake in moderation helps to prevent cancer, osteoporosis, and diabetes. 

But, the key word is moderation

How to serve sake

The sake is served out of a big flask or bottle called a tokkuri. It’s usually made of porcelain but these days glass tokkuri is popular too.

Then, the sake is poured into tiny cups which are called sakazuki or o-choko. Sometimes they use a fancier serving setup called masu. 

This masu is a box in which rice is served. The sake is placed in the cup and inside the box.

This is usually a ceremonial type of service, so if you go to a bar, you’ll probably just drink out of sakazuki small cups.

You’ll find that sake is sold in a traditional unit called “go” which is about 180ml per portion.

If you drink alone, you can just pour the sake into the cup and drink it.

But, if you are with company, then you usually serve others first and wait to be served by the others. Hold the cup and let your friend or the server pour you the sake.

Now, it’s time to return the favor and serve the others.

Usually, drinking sake is accompanied by a common toast called Kampai.

Simply bring the cup close to your mouth and smell the sake to show that you’re taking in the aromas. It’s a form of respect for the drink and the other guests.

Then, take a short sip and savor it in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.

You don’t gulp down sake like you do beer because you drink it in small quantities, so try to savor it.

Why do the Japanese over pour sake?

If you’ve seen servers or Japanese people over pour sake, don’t worry, it’s not an accident.

Spilling the sake is a performance and a part of the sake drinking experience.

The role of over-pouring is to express generosity towards guests and to offer a bit of entertainment.

When sake is served that way, it’s called Mokkiri Zake (もっきり酒).

Does sake need to breathe?

As a general idea, sake does not need to breathe.

But, there are two types of sake that benefit from “breathing”.

Super highly-polished sake benefits from a bit of air which helps bring out the aromas and flavors.

As well, those aromatic sakes also taste better after a bit of aeration because the volatiles will evaporate and the taste will be cleaner.

How to drink sake

Premium sake (Ginjo grade or higher) is best if drunk between chilled and at room temperature.

Quality sake is served chilled most often, while average sake is usually served hot to mask its imperfect flavors.

Think of sake as it is a fine chardonnay wine that is:

  • very good if served at room temperature,
  • still pretty nice, and perhaps a little more refreshing if served chilled,
  • but then loses all its flavor if served cold as ice.

For years, sake was identified by most Americans with the teapots used to heat it up and the small ceramic glasses into which the steaming liquid was poured.

But this step was not merely aesthetic, it was to cover up the poor sake quality that was being served.

So put away the sake warmer, and serve your sake in your finest glasses of wine, (as many high-end Japanese restaurants do nowadays), and experience one of the most fascinating rituals in the potable world.

The sake degustation procedure is exactly the same as you would a wine, tossing the sake around the mouth to ensure that it also touches the taste buds underneath the tongue.

Swirl the sake in the glass. The sake should have more body (more anatomy), usually rich flavors, and feel more full or round in the mouth if rich legs appear on the glass.

It should be clear, but occasionally it can look a bit yellow.

Swirling the sake releases tiny droplets in the glass that let us smell the sake more easily. Try it by smelling the sake before swirling, then swirl it and sniff again.

The intensity difference should be considerable.

What do you drink with sake?

If you don’t want to drink sake on its own, don’t worry, you can drink sake in cocktails.

A popular sake cocktail combination is Coca-Cola and sake, or yogurt and sake.

Alternatively, you can combine sake with gin or vodka (hard liquors) and then add lime juice and simple syrup.

This makes for a delicious cocktail that will slightly mask the sake’s flavor and letting the taste of gin or vodka come through.

Cooking vs drinking sake

Sake is a drink of choice for recreational drinkers as well as a kitchen staple for cooking many Japanese recipes, especially meaty ones.

Sake has a medium alcohol content of 15-20% ABV (alcohol by volume).

This drink can be served hot or cold and it’s served from a flask called tokkuri (徳利) and drunk out of small cups.

A cooking sake, also known as Ryorishi, is not much different from regular sake for drinking. Even the alcohol content is the same. The only difference is that cooking sake contains salt, making it taste less sweet.

The production of Ryorishi started when the government mandated that stores have special permits to be able to sell alcohol-based substances.

By adding salt to the liquid, the sake becomes no longer fit for drinking.

Stores with no alcohol permit can still sell cooking sake under the section of cooking ingredients, alongside soy sauce and mayonnaise.

Moreover, the tax for alcoholic beverages is pretty high, making the products generally expensive.

But as Ryorishi no longer falls in this category, manufacturers would be able to sell it at a much cheaper price.

The alcohol content of Ryorishi is slightly lower than the regular drinking sake. Most brands offer cooking sake with only 13-14% of ABV.

Why cook with sake?

Japanese use sake to cook, much like how you’d cook with wine. Alcohol evaporates along with the smell of the meat/fish.

Sake can tenderize meat, making the liquid popular to braise or marinate beef or fishes.

Moreover, sake can also eliminate the fishy odor from seafood due to its alcohol content.

But the main reason why people love pouring sake in the middle of the cooking process is that the traditional rice wine strengthens the umami flavor.

It does provide umami and a naturally sweet flavor (from rice – sake’s main ingredient), so Japanese cuisine usually adds sake to

  • their soup stock,
  • sauces,
  • nimono (simmered dishes like Nikujaga)
  • and yakimono (grilled dishes like Teriyaki Chicken).

Types of cooking sake

Looking to try cooking sake?

Here are 3 popular brands:

  • Kikkoman
  • Hinode
  • Yutaka

However, any kind of sake can work for cooking purposes, and I prefer using drinkable sake because the cooking sake has added salt in it (more on that later in the post).

Now that might leave you wondering, how is cooking sake different from drinkable sake? This article will inform anything you need to know about cooking with sake.

There are many varieties of sake available, similar to white wine, where they can be classified from dry to sweet, and from delicate to robust.

You can find cheap bottles, such as Gekkeikan, Sho Chiku Bai, or Ozeki, at Japanese or Asian grocery stores.

I’ve reviewed the best sake for both drinking and cooking here in depth

Sake comes in many variations based on its quality, process, and ingredients. Here are the variations of sake, starting from the highest class:

Daiginjo

The finest type of sake is Daiginjo with 50% or less of the rice remaining unpolished.

The production method is more complicated, resulting in the richest complexity of the taste and aroma of the beverage.

Without added alcohol, this type of sake is called Junmai Daiginjo.

Ginjo

Ginjo sake uses 60% or less unpolished rice in the production. The fermentation process goes at a colder temperature and for a longer time.

This type of sake tastes light and fruity. Ginjo sake with no added alcohol content is called Junmai Ginjo.

Honjozo

Considered as the entry-level sake, Honjozo uses 70% or less unpolished rice. With a strong flavor of rice, this type of sake is refreshing and easy to drink.

Junmai also refers to pure sake, as it contains no added starch or sugar for fermentation.

Futsushu

Futsushu is the most common type of sake, where people buy and drink it casually. Almost 80% of sake in the market is Futsushu.

The cheap sake usually contains added sugar and organic acids to create a tasty flavor. This type of sake is similar to what westerns usually call “table wine”.

Ryorishu

Cooking sake (Ryorishu) can also be used. Cooking sake is a kind of sake especially crafted for cooking.

Manufacturers are required by law to add salt (2-3 percent) to cooking wine so it’s unfit for drinking, that way the products can be carried by shops without an alcohol license.

I prefer to use regular drinking sake since cooking sake includes salt and other ingredients (like the 3 brands mentioned above in the article), but I think a small amount of cooking sake should be okay.

Where can I buy sake?

I hope you’ll find sake in your vicinity, as this is one of Japanese cooking’s most important ingredients.

If you’re in the US, you’ll be able to find a well-stocked liquor store with drinking sake.

These can also be found in any Japanese grocery store or Asian grocery store that has an alcohol license.

You may be able to find cooking sake in your local grocery store in the Asian aisle or online at Amazon.

If for whatever reason you can’t find sake or cooking sake, however, there are several alternatives your can substitute it with.

How should you store sake?

Now that you have sake, you’re probably wondering can you keep sake after opening?

Yes, cooking sake has a long shelf life while drinking sake can be consumed for about 2 weeks after you open it.

For cooking purposes, sake can be kept in a cold, dark place for two to three months, or even half a year.

Regular drinking sake has a shelf life, so try to finish an opened bottle within about a week or two.

Most sake contains no preservatives, making it vulnerable to changes and spoilage.

Sake is sensitive to light, temperature, and humidity. Hence, you should never store it in a place where the condition fluctuates.

Both drinkable and cooking sake requires similar treatment of storing.

Keep the bottle in a cool and dark place. A temperature of 41°F is ideal for sake storage, but it should never go beyond 59°F. A refrigerator can be your best bet for it.

The shelf life of unopened sake, in general, is about one year after the brewery process. But if you store it well, a good quality sake might even last up to two years.

After you open it, unlike wine, you don’t have to finish the whole bottle of sake in one go. You can close it tight and store it back in the refrigerator.

As long as you seal the bottle properly, Ryorishi can last longer, up to 2-3 months or even half a year.

Without a refrigerator and proper sealant, sake can only last for no more than three days before losing its best taste.

After that, the sake would still be consumable. It just won’t taste as good as it used to be.

Mirin vs sake: is mirin sake?

Many people sometimes confuse mirin with cooking sake as both are Japanese rice wines intended to be food flavoring.

While they are very similar, mirin and sake differ in lots of ways.

The main difference is that mirin is sweeter and has less alcohol than sake, around 1-14% of ABV, which is safer to drink and can even be found in supermarkets.

Mirin vs. sake- is mirin sake? Certainly not, here's how they differ

Moreover, mirin is mostly used as a dipping sauce or condiment, while cooking sake is used in the cooking process.

Throughout Japanese cuisine, sake & mirin are often used hand in hand in a recipe.

Mirin has a high sugar content and low alcohol content, while sake, on the other hand, has a high alcohol content and low sugar content.

On top of that, mirin can be added to a dish untreated, with ease.

Contrary to sake which is added at the beginning of the cooking process most of the time to let some of that alcohol evaporate.

Mirin and sake are both cooking wines frequently used in Japanese dishes.

While they are substitutes for each other and both made from fermented rice, they are different ingredients.

The differences between mirin and sake

Mirin is used mainly as an ingredient in food. Sake can also be used as an ingredient in food, but it is also safe for drinking.

Sake contains more alcohol than mirin, and mirin contains more sugar than sake. Mirin is a lot sweeter than sake as a result.

When using sake as an ingredient in a dish, you will want to add it earlier in the cooking process. This allows the alcohol to evaporate.

Since mirin contains less alcohol, you can add it to the dish later on or even after it is cooked.

The best way to use sake is to let it simmer with the food so it can absorb the different flavors. If you add sake too late, it results in a harsh taste.

Mirin can be added at the end of the dish and will not result in a harsh flavor.

How to use mirin

You can use mirin in just about any dish to add a sweet, tangy flavor. Like sake, mirin also tenderizes meat and reduces fishy or other odors.

Mirin is often used as a glaze once the dish is cooked.

Can you use sake and mirin together?

Yes, sake and mirin are often used together in Japanese dishes. You will likely find both ingredients in dishes such as teriyaki chicken, sukiyaki, and chawanmushi.

You’ll also find mirin and sake together in Nikiri sauce: a great recipe & the traditional brushing technique

What are substitutes for mirin and sake?

Substitutes for sake include dry sherry, Chinese rice wine, or mirin.

The best substitute for mirin is a mix of sake and sugar. Another option for those who can’t consume alcohol is Honteri.

I’ve written about more options for alcohol-free mirin here.

Rice vinegar is not a good substitute for either sake or mirin.

Can I leave out sake or mirin in a recipe?

It is not recommended to leave out sake or mirin when a recipe calls for it. Both sake and mirin affect not just the flavor, but also the consistency and texture of a dish.

Cooking wines such as sake and mirin add luster to dishes. Skipping them can change the flavor of your dish drastically.

If you do not have sake or mirin and can’t get some, try a substitute such as dry sherry or other cooking wines mixed with sugar.

Is sake ok to drink?

Sake is ok to drink. It is a cooking wine that contains high levels of alcohol.

Some liquor stores may carry drinkable sake.

Sake is an excellent choice for health-conscious people looking for an alcoholic drink that is high in amino acids and made with simple ingredients.

Sake is a much healthier choice than other alcoholic beverages since it has been found to have many health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and improving heart health.

Is mirin ok to drink?

Pure mirin, or Hon mirin, is ok to drink.

Check the ingredients to see if there are additives or preservatives. If there are, you should not drink it.

Grocery stores often sell mirin-like condiments that are not ok to drink.

What are good brands of sake and mirin?

Certain brands of sake and mirin are better than others.

If you find yourself in the Asian cuisine aisle looking for sake or mirin to cook with, look for brands such as Takara Sake, Gekkeikan Sake, Eden Foods Mirin, and Mitoku Mikawa Mirin.

If you do not see these brands, other brands will work just fine. If you are having trouble finding sake and mirin at the store, you can buy some online.

Amazon has many options to choose from.

Conclusion

Drinking sake, as well as cooking with sake, can be such a unique experience.

And you don’t even have to spend a lot of money to get the best cooking sake as any kind of sake will do.

Check out our new cookbook

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

Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:

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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.