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The Proper Way to Drink Sake

You are perusing the alcoholic beverages on the menu at your favorite restaurant because you are in the mood to try something different. Sake catches your eye. You have noticed people drinking sake, but you have never tried it before.

friends drinking sake together

This alcoholic beverage is an integral part of Japanese culture, but you are not sure how to drink sake. Diners should know that there is a specific way to drink sake.

Not everyone will enjoy sake like any other drink, and consuming sake requires knowledge about this delicious drink. We will discuss sake etiquette, how to serve sake, and how to drink sake.


What Is Sake?

Sake is a traditional Japanese beverage. Producers make sake with fermented rice, and the fermentation process involves using rice polished to remove the bran. The alcohol content in sake is incredibly high compared to other drinks.

Pour a cold sake made from rice

Undiluted, sake can have an alcohol content between 18% and 20%. China started producing a form of sake in 500 BC, and their brewing technique spread throughout Japan during the Nara period.

There are now approximately 2000 sake breweries in Japan producing the drink that is steadily increasing in popularity. You will find choices on a menu: nama sake, yunmai sake, nigori sake, sparkling sake, and several daigingo sakes.

In Japanese culture, people offer sake as a gift to their gods. People use this gift at a variety of events and celebrations. At weddings, sharing sake represents the strengthening of a relationship. At other festivals, drinking sake represents cleansing and starting new.


How to Heat Sake

Before introducing premium sake served at room temperature or served chilled, it was customary to serve sake warm. Heating sake allows delicate flavors to emerge.

sake served hot

Enjoying sake at different temperatures is an entirely different experience regarding sake taste and texture.  The key to success for hot sake is to warm it slowly.

The best way to prepare hot sake is to use a tokkuri. A tokkuri is a serving decanter typically made from ceramic, and you use a tokkuri to heat and serve sake. Pour sake into the tokkuri and place it in a pot of cold water.

Ensure that the water level reaches just below the edge of the tokkuri. The sake must heat up evenly. Remove the tokkuri and boil the water.

Remove the pot from the burner. Place the tokkuri into the pot of boiled water. Heating times will vary depending on the material of your tokkuri.

You will have to determine your desired temperature for the best sake experience. You can also enjoy hot sake from the microwave. If your tokkuri is microwavable-safe, cover the top and microwave your sake for one minute.

It is perfectly fine to serve sake from the microwave. It is different from the traditional way of serving sake, but it will do if you are in a hurry.


How to Chill Sake

Many enjoy chilled sake and can keep their sake bottle in the refrigerator. Pouring sake into sake cups stored at room temperature will slightly warm the sake.

pouring cold sake chilled from the ref

If you plan to enjoy more than one bottle of sake, you can put an ice bucket on your table. You can place your sake bottle in the bucket to maintain the desired serving temperatures.

If you want to cool a bottle of sake that is at room temperature, you can wrap it in a wet towel and place it in the freezer for about twenty minutes.

You can also set it in an ice bucket. You can also chill the small ceramic cups used for sake drinking. Place the cups in the refrigerator until they are cold.

Pour the room temperature sake into the cups and enjoy your chilled sake. If you don’t have time to wait, you can place an ice cube into your sake cup.

The ice cube will water down the strong taste of quality sake. When you drink sake straight for the first time, an ice cube might help you acquire a taste for pure sake.


How Do You Serve Sake

How sake is served is a true art. Most sake can be served warmed, chilled, or at room temperature. The season may play a part in your serving decision, and a cold day might call for hot sake, while a chilled sake would be best for a hot day.

man pouring Japanese sake in a porcelain cup

One sake might taste best when served hot, while another tastes best when cold. If you are a beginner to drinking sake, your best bet is to read the sake bottle, and you should always check for the bottling date and serving instructions when you buy sake.

Typically, people drink sake from small porcelain or ceramic cups. Good sake has a higher alcohol content than other beverages, so you should pour less than you would in a wine glass.

An ideal serving of ordinary sake is six ounces. People will drink sake slowly, refilling their cups when needed. Serving sake following Japanese tradition means the host will pour for their guests and then allow someone else to pour for you.

You can refill cups as dinner conversation flows around you, and diners receiving sake shouldn’t even notice as you add more sake to their cups.


How to Read a Sake Bottle

Knowing how to drink sake is essential, but you must first learn how to buy a particular sake. When you know what you are looking for, the information on the sake bottle label will give you all the necessary information.

 Variety of sake bottles display with labels

Bottling Date

You should take note of the bottling date. Producers usually age sake for six months to a year. 


Polishing ratio

The polishing ratio shows how much the producers polished the rice, and a smaller percentage shows a better quality of sake.


Alcohol Content

Sake contains the highest alcohol content of all alcoholic beverages. An undiluted sake can be as high as 20%, and typically, sake will have an alcohol content between 13% – 16%.


Sake Meter Value

The sake meter value indicates the amount of sugar in the sake. A negative number means sweet sake, while a positive number means much dryer sake.


Acidity

This measure shows the amounts of acids in the sake. Sake contains lactic acid, succinic, malic, and citric acid. The combination and quantities of these acids will determine the flavor.


Amino Acid

More amino acids will mean a more complex and savory flavor. Fewer amino acids create a more delicate sake.


Serving

The label should include the best way to drink sake. The serving temperature will affect the flavor of the sake.

Sake best served warm: When sake contains high levels of lactic acid, warming the sake can remove unpleasant flavors or mask them. 

Sake best served chilled: Carbonated, fragrant, unpasteurized, and sparkling unfiltered sake tastes best when cold.

Sake best served at room temperature: Premium sake does not need any preparation to taste amazing.


How to Choose the Right Sake

Choosing the right sake comes down to choosing the flavor that pleases your palate. You will need to determine if you like a sweet or dry, heavy or light aroma and complex or refreshing taste. 

Image of a woman tasting sake

If you are a beginner, try junmai gingo or junmai daigingo sake. Junmai gingo and junmai daigingo sake are refreshing sakes that are easy for beginners to drink.


Appearance

The appearance of your sake will depend on the method for fermenting rice, and the pressing process will also affect the appearance of the sake.

sake appearance of cloudy white color

Sake can be a clear greenish or yellowish color, or it can be a cloudy white color. You will have to research the type of sake you consider to know how it should look.


Aroma

Sake is produced with various aromas, and the brewing and aging process affects the final fragrance. You can choose sake with a fruity and floral scent to a spicy and roasted smell.


Taste

Most sake has a fruity taste and hints of apples and bananas. Every step in the sake production process can affect the flavor.


Temperature

You should check the label on your sake bottle for the best serving temperature. Some types of sake can be served hot, chilled, or at room temperature. You might have a preference as to whether you would like warm sake or refreshing chilled sake.


Sake Etiquette

Consuming sake should be an experience, and there is an art to serving and enjoying this traditional Japanese beverage. There are several things that you should learn before attempting your sake adventure.

sake bowl being used for proper etiquette

Pronounce It Correctly

If you would like to pronounce sake as close to the Japanese pronunciation as possible, you should pronounce it as “sah-keh” rather than “sah-kee.”


Don’t Drink It Like a Shot

Sake is generally enjoyed when having appetizers, and diners should sip their sake slowly to experience the full flavor. 


Use Both Hands When Pouring or Receiving Sake

It is proper etiquette to use both hands when pouring or receiving sake. When you pour sake, you should hold the bottle in your right hand near the top and support the bottom with your left hand.

both hands receiving from glass while pouring sake

It would be best never to place your right hand on the bottom, as this signifies disrespect. When receiving sake, you should hold the small cup in one hand and support the bottom in the other.


Offer to Refill Someone’s Empty Cup

You should always refill your guests’ cups. Sake is a social drink, and serving others signifies friendship and camaraderie.

offer to refill someone’s empty cup

Don’t Fill the Cup Completely

You should never fill the cup to the top. Sake has a high alcohol content, so you should enjoy it in several small servings.


Don’t Drink Sake Straight From the Bottle

You should never drink straight from the bottle or tokkuri. You may be enjoying sake by yourself, but a tokkuri is meant for pouring.

sake refill

Don’t Mix Different Sake

You should never mix different sake; the sake will be at different temperatures and affect the flavor.


Which Is the Best Food to Pair With Sake?

You can pair sake with anything you serve; however, sake goes exceptionally well with certain dishes. Sake’s flavors will emerge when served with sushi and sashimi, fried fish, shrimp, and thai food.

sake with food pair of vegetable and salads

Surprisingly, sake is delicious with fatty meats such as fried chicken. Sake is an excellent choice for dinner parties serving ramen, vegetable dishes, and salads.

You can also enjoy sake while relaxing with pizza or barbecue, which will bring out the sweetness of chocolate desserts. People have started serving sake with appetizers instead of white wine. You can sip sake as you nibble on small delicacies.


FAQ’s

What is the best sake for beginners?

The best sake for beginners is junmai gingo and junmai daigingo, which are refreshing and easy to drink.

Can you get drunk on sake?

Yes, you can get drunk on sake. It has a high alcohol content, so if you consume enough, you will get drunk. Sake is served in small ceramic cups to slow consumption.

Should you age sake?

You do not need to age sake. Typically, a bottle of sake is meant to be consumed in one sitting.

How to warm sake?

The best way to warm sake is in a pot of warm water. Boil water in a pot and then remove from the heat. Place the tokkuri with sake in hot water and let the sake warm.

Can you microwave sake?

You can microwave sake, but it is recommended to use a pot of boiled water to warm it evenly. If you use a microwave, do not microwave for more than a minute.


Final Thoughts

Sake is a unique Japanese beverage. Drinking sake is more than just a drink; it is meant to be a social experience. You can enjoy sake with family and friends, which is an excellent choice for dinner parties and celebrations.

Once you have found your favorite sake, you will enjoy sharing it with others. You can serve sake warm or chilled, depending on the mood you want to create. Every celebration has a sake; you must find the right one.

Written by Rocco

Rocco is a Florida State University alumnus with years of bartending and hospitality experience. From slinging hundreds of vodka sodas a night in jam-packed college bars to serving carefully crafted cocktails in upscale restaurants, there’s not much he hasn’t done behind a bar. Now, Rocco shares his knowledge and passion for all things alcohol-related here on My Bartender for bibulous readers everywhere to enjoy.

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