This is a shortened version of the first episode of my podcast, which you are welcome to listen to. Sake is a mysterious drink for a lot of people. Many heard but only a few have tried. As any mysterious object, it’s surrounded by myths and legends. Some of them are completely false and others have some truth in them. Before I started my sake journey I also had many misconceptions about it. So I would like to share some of the most common sake myths and bust them here. Or see if there is any truth in them.
Sake Myth 01: Sake is a spirit
One of the main sake myths I hear quite often is that sake is a spirit, like vodka or gin. I personally had the same impression before starting drinking sake. There are a couple of reasons for the origin of this myth. First of all, sake is called “rice vodka” in some sources. It was definitely a case for me. I probably read it in a novel about Japan when I was a boy.
However, the main reason is its look, usually transparent as vodka or gin. When you look at it in a glass you automatically assume that if it looks like vodka, it should taste like one. Also, sake was usually drunk from small cups like ochoko, which also created the impression that sake is strong alcohol.
So this is a total myth. While spirits are made by distillation, sake is a naturally fermented alcoholic drink. When it’s made, it’s usually 20% ABV but diluted to 15-17% to make it easier to drink.
So sake is not a spirit, the first sake myth is busted!
Sake Myth 02: Sake is rice wine
Another myth or more like a misconception, which is probably related to the previous sake myth, is a term “rice wine” used for sake even in Japanese sources in English. However, it’s a reference more to the strength of sake rather than a brewing method. The answer to the question, whether sake is wine is a definite “no”.
While both sake and wine are made by fermentation, winemaking is very different from sake brewing, which is closer to the method used to make beer. Still, the brewing method for sake is really unique.
You might already know that to make alcohol you need sugar and you need yeast, which breaks sugar into alcohol and CO2. Let’s take grapes. They are full of natural sugar. What you need is to press and mash them and leave for a couple of weeks and voila, the wine is ready. Of course, I am heavily oversimplifying, but you’ve got the gist.
Sake and beer are made from grains, which do not have sugar naturally. But they have starch, which is basically the same thing just slightly different molecules. For plants, starch is easier to store and sugar is easier to consume.
In beer making, the starch is turned into sugar using germination, when grains are tricked into believing that it’s spring and it’s time to converting stored starch into sugar to get the energy.
But it’s more complex with sake, where brewers use koji (Aspergillus oryzae), a sort of domesticated mould, widely used in Asia for fermentation of foods like miso paste, soy sauce.
Koji penetrates a rice grain and transforms starch into sugar, which used by yeast to make alcohol. However, the amazing think about sake is that both transformations, starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol are happening simultaneously and the process has a super scientific name, multiple parallel fermentation.
So next time you hear “rice wine” instead of sake, you know that it’s not true.
Sake Myth 03: Sake is always drunk warm
It’s a common belief that sake should be drunk hot. If you’ve ever watched any samurai movie, you should remember lords sitting on the raised floors and drinking hot sake from flat cups, called by the way sakazuki. Even when you go to Japanese restaurants here in London, a waiter often ask how you would like your sake: cold or hot. So sake is drunk hot. But not always, and not all sake. As often with Japan, it depends on a number of factors and there are plenty of exceptions.
The beauty of sake is that majority of it can be drunk at any temperature you like. Really. You can experiment with temperatures and it’s fun. But it also depends on the type of sake and some other factors. Basically, there is a category of sake you normally should drink chilled: ginjo style sake.
So if you see ginjo or daiginjo in the name or on the bottle, try it chilled first. But not too cold. The rule of thumb, white wine cold or a bit warmer. However, as I said you can experiment with the temperature yourself.
The reason why you don’t want to warm up ginjo sake is that it has a very delicate flavour profile so if you warm it up, you will lose it. However, sake brewers seemed to find a way to make ginjo sake in a way, it is still very good warm.
With other sake styles, it depends on a particular sake flavour and taste profile and circumstances. There are dry, crisp and light sake, which usually better chilled and there are more savoury full-bodied sake, which might be great at room temperature or hot.
Also in a cold winter evening, you might want a cup of hot sake to warm you up, but on a hot summer day, you will probably have a glass of nicely chilled sake.
One of the reasons to experiment is that different people might prefer to drink the same sake at different temperatures. I have a friend, who actually likes sake colder than I do. But he is OK to give it a try at a slightly warmer temperature. But then he always says: “It’s OK, but I prefer it chilled”.
So hot sake is not a myth but it depends.
Sake Myth 04: Sake is good only with Japanese food
The next sake myth I would like to tackle is that sake is good only with Japanese food. Seriously? First of all, you don’t always have French food with French wine or Italian food with Italian wine. Actually, you might not even have a “national cuisine” meal. What about a Thai starter and a British main dish with a German side? Why not? What kind of drink will you have with that?
To be fair, as many national drinks, sake was developed through the centuries to go well with Japanese cuisine. It complements Japanese dishes perfectly. I remember when I first tried sake in Japan I had this distinctive feeling of a perfect marriage between the food and the drink.
And historically, Japanese food used to be quite delicate if not plain and a mild and not very acidic taste of sake was a great fit. But both Japanese cuisine and sake have changed dramatically in the last couple of centuries.
The food has become much more diverse while sake has become drier and more refined. For example, the modern ginjo style we’ve just talked about emerged only in the 1970s, 50 years ago. So, of course, that link between sake and Japanese food has weakened with time.
Nowadays, the mild and low acidity profile of sake makes it easy to pair with a wide variety of food. Any sake is great with cheese because both are naturally rich in umami, this mysterious fifth taste, which makes steak or ripe tomatoes so delicious.
Junmai sake, which even richer in umami, will perfectly complement risotto, beef bourguignon and any other hearty food. While lighter ginjo sake is great with lighter food: oysters, lightly grilled fish, steamed chicken, veggies.
I once had a sake and Indian curry night and discovered that sweeter and lighter sake was very nice with hot dishes like jalfrezi, while drier and more savoury sake was great with less spicy dishes like korma.
So sake is a very cool drink to experiment with and will go with any meal. Just buy sake and try it with you favourite food and you will see for yourself. You just need to select it properly like any wine for example. I will do an episode on sake and food pairing but in the meantime drop me a line if you need any advice!
So please think about sake even if you are having something non-Japanese.
Sake Myth 05: Premium sake is always better
The final sake myth I would like to talk about is that more premium sake is always better. I have to say straight away, it’s not true. While sake is usually fairly priced and I mean that if you pay more you will usually get more premium sake, a premium sake not necessarily better. I have personally drunk a few a bit boring Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo and many terrific honjozo or junmai sake.
First, the quality of sake depends not only on its grade but also on the skill of the sake master brewer, who made it. Secondly, there are occasions you would like to drink premium sake like daiginjo, but on other times, you might want to have less premium junmai or honjozo sake.
Premium sake is a great entry point for people who never tried sake before but the more you try, your attitude will gradually start to change. It actually happened to me. My personal breakthrough came when I did my sake specialist course called International Kikisake-shi, where I tried a very wide range of sake and realised that yes, there are wonderful sake in all grades, categories and styles. This is how I stopped being a “ginjo snob” using John Gauntner’s expression.
So please don’t be put off by lack of ginjo or daiginjo in the name of the sake, try it and decide for yourself whether you like it or not.
Here you are, the five main sake myths described, analysed and either busted or partially proved. If you would like more details, listen to the episode of Sugidama Podcast either here on the website or on any podcast platform of your choice. Try various sake, experiment with different temperatures and foods and, the most important thing, enjoy it!