WINE EDUCATION: Japanese Saké 

If all you know about Sake is the warm, alcoholic, rustic stuff served at many hibachi grills and Japanese restaurants, then you will be amazed by the range of flavors and the complexity of cold sakes.


Sake’ boasts flavors of berries, melons, anise, lychee, macadamia, peaches, white pepper and a myriad of other tastes can all be found in small batch, artisan made cold-serve Sakes.  These Sake’s are not just for pairing with sushi either, they are great food wines that match up well with any cuisine you would normally serve a Sauvignon Blanc or Chablis with.

Sake is a gluten free, sulfite free beverage perfect for many who suffer with headaches, rashes and other allergies associate with many other alcoholic drinks. Often called “rice wine” Sake is actually a brewed product, more similar to beer than to wine. Rice, water, yeast and a special mold affected rice(Koji) are the only ingredients in many premium Sakes (alcohol spirits are added to some to help bring out more flavor), and each of those three components will have a profound effect on the finished product.

Here are some popular sake terms:

  • DAIGINJO: 50% or more of kernel polished away.
  • GINJO: 40% or more of kernel polished away.
  • HONJOZO: 30% or more of kernel polished away.
  • FUTSU: “Table Sake” with no minimum polishing requirements. Accounts for 75% of total Sake production
  • JUNMAI: Sake made without the addition of distilled alcohol, or “pure rice saké”.
  • GENSHU: A Saké that is undiluted before bottling.
  • POLISHING GRADES: Rice kernels for making sake are “polished” to remove the proteins, minerals and other impurities located in the outer portion of the kernel to get to the pure, fermentable starches at the center. The more of the outer husk polished away, the better the grade of Sake produced.
  • TOKUBETSU: A somewhat vague term that means “special” sake. Polishing of 55+%, low fermentation temperatures, or rare rice strains are some of the most common reasons for a Sake earning a tokubetsu designation.
  • NIGORI: A ‘Milk Saké’ or sake that is partially unfiltered or that has had some of the rice solids added back, resulting in a Sake that has a cloudy, milky white texture and appearance. Most have an off-dry to sweet flavor.
  • NIHONSHUDO: Also called Saké Meter Value (SMV) – A number that can be found on the back label of many Sakes indicating the sweetness/dryness level. Zero being a neutral sweetness level with higher positive numbers indicating drier Sakes and lower negative numbers indicating sweeter Sakés.
  • NAMA: Indicates an unpasteurized Saké.
  • YAMAHAI: A traditional, time consuming brewing method that utilizes native yeast strains. Many breweries have abandoned the process since using cultured yeasts takes half the time and creates more predictable flavors. Yamahai Sakes typically have funky, yeasty, smoky, nutty notes.