Sake to Me: A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying Sake

Often referred to as nihonshu, sake is a quintessential alcoholic fermented rice drink. While it has long been used for weddings, funerals, and everything in between, this national beverage is making waves abroad. Drink aficionados are growing appreciation for the subtle flavors, several classifications, and bold pleasures of this meticulously crafted Japanese alcohol.

If you’re new to sake, we’ve put together this beginner’s guide to help you get the most out of your rice wine experience. First, let’s take a look at how sake is made:


How Is Sake Made?


Among the first steps is polishing or milling rice grains to remove the bran, exposing the starch component of each grain. With increased polishing, proteins, fats, and lipids that result in unwanted flavors and aromas in the brewing process are taken out.

Premium sake is typically made with grains that have been polished to 50%–70%. As a general rule of thumb, the more the rice has been polished, the higher the sake classification level.


Sake brewers start the process of making shubo, a yeast starter or seed mash that’s widely considered to be the foundation of sake brewing. The rice is washed, steam-cooked, and mixed with yeast and koji (a type of mold). This starter batch is left to ferment to grow a vibrant yeast colony before it is moved to a larger fermentation tank. Then, more steamed rice, koji, and water are added to the main tank — a shikomi — for 18-32 days. After that, it’s pressed, filtered, and blended.

Most sakes are pasteurized and left to age for at least six months before being shipped out.


A Look Into Sake Classifications

There are myriad types of sake, and most have an alcohol content of 15%–16% on average. Here are the four main classifications:

  • Junmai: Japanese for “pure rice,” junmai is a critical term as it separates pure rice sake from its non-pure counterpart known as honjozo. The junmai rice is polished to 70%, brewed using only water, yeast, and koji. This sake’s taste is said to have a rich, full body with a slightly acidic flavor.
  • Honjozo: This type of sake also uses rice that has been polished to 70%, but it contains a small amount of distilled brewer’s alcohol that’s added to smoothen out flavor and aroma. These sakes are typically drier, lower in acidity, and less fragrant than pure sake.
  • Ginjo and junmai ginjo: Ginjo consists of rice milled to 60%, water, yeast, koji, and distilled alcohol. It’s typically made in smaller batches to better control the fermentation process and sports a light, fruity, complex flavor. Junmai ginjo is a pure rice sake made with a brewing process that involves low-temperature fermentation and no distilled alcohol addition.
  • Daiginjo and junmai daiginjo: This premium version of ginjo sake is made with rice polished to at least 50% and has added distilled alcohol. Light, fruity, and fragrant, Daiginjo sakes are considered the highest grade of sake. Junmai daiginjo is a sake that has not been brewed with distilled alcohol.


Finding Your Sake Preference

The differences don’t stop there!

  • Namazake:Nama,” in essence, means “raw” or “live” in Japanese. Namazake must be refrigerated to stay fresh and exhibits a fruity flavor and sweet aroma.
  • Nigorizake: Usually sweet and creamy with a texture range of silky smooth to thick and chunky depending on its filtration method, nigorizake is cloudy white and coarsely filtered.
  • Sparkling nihonshu: Akin to sparkling wine, it is bottled before the full completion of the fermentation process, resulting in bubbles.
  • Koshu: This sake refers to old or aged sake. While most sakes are made to be consumed within a year of their production, you can enjoy them well after that period. It’s been said that, like vintage wine, sake can transform into a sophisticated version of itself with age.
  • Jizake: “Locally-brewed sake,” jizake refers to sakes unique to a town or region.


How Do I Drink Sake?

Junmai sakes are best served warm or at room temperature, while honjozo sakes can be enjoyed warm or chilled. Ginjo and daiginjo sakes are typically served chilled to bring out their complex flavors and aromas.

Many connoisseurs recommended drinking premium sakes from a glass to avoid impacting the complex, often subtle flavors and aromas. However, it’s also fun to drink sake the traditional way: out of an ochoko (ceramic cup) or masu (square wooden receptacle).

Pairing Sake With Food: What You Should Know

Sake enthusiasts posit this enigmatic, versatile beverage complements food just as superbly as wine does. Moreover, it pairs with certain ingredients, such as asparagus, that can be challenging for wine.

  • A junmai sake goes down well with a rich, flavorful dish — think stewed meat, fish entrees, or cream-based dishes like gratin. It also pairs well with crème brûlée, cheese cake, and other desserts. Junmai ginjo goes well with the delicate flavors of sushi and sashimi or steamed fish.
  • Honjozo is an excellent match for hiyayakko (cold tofu with onion and soya sauce, tempura, wagyu, and vinegar-laced dishes.
  • Ginjo and daiginjo complement the simpler things, including white fish, ohitashi, and mountain vegetable tempura. Daiginjos also go exquisitely with fresh fruit.


Explore New Favorites at Kabuto

When you visit Kabuto, you’re getting so much more than a fast-casual caliber of dining; you’re immersing yourself in an atmosphere that places a high value on fresh ingredients, quality selection, and a modern take on long-standing tradition. Ideal for birthday parties, hibachi lovers, and Japanese culinary enthusiasts alike, our staff is committed to providing you an immaculate experience that lets you discover your new favorites with those that mean most to you.

While this guide is a window into the wonderful world of sake, our expertise — and your sake journey — doesn’t stop there. Our highly-trained staff can educate you even further and make sake recommendations based on your personal preferences and food order. We have an extensive sake menu available upon request; stop by to learn more! Kabuto invites you to try all sorts of sakes at our different locations, including:

  • East Norriton, PA
  • Parkville, MD
  • Rockville, MD


Whether you’ve never tried sake before or you’re looking to experiment with different varieties, Kabuto is the place to be! Look over our menu, or check out our gallery, and contact us today for more information!