Sake

4 Sake Myths—Debunked

Separating the myths from the facts about sake can help consumers better understand this niche category

sake containers lined up
Photo by Jeff Cioletti.

Sake isn’t nearly as exotic or mysterious as it once was to American consumers. Not only have Americans become better educated about global food and beverage traditions, including Japan’s, but sake has become a more popular beverage in the States. Between 2011 and 2016, the category volume of sake grew about 16 percent in the U.S., according to the market research firm Euromonitor. (And that’s good news for Japanese producers because consumption has been steadily declining at home—it dropped 11 percent during that same period—and sake brewers now rely on export markets to expand their businesses.) But despite this stateside success, the sake category is rife with misconceptions about how to serve it, how to drink it, and even what constitutes good sake. Here, we tackle four of the big ones.

Myth No. 1: Only the lowest-quality sake should be heated.

Many consumers as well as restaurants and bars still subscribe to the notion that “cheap” sake should be heated, and “good” sake should be consumed chilled. While it’s true that some sakes benefit from being warmed and others are more enjoyable cold, the serving temperature has little to do with premium versus subpremium sake. It’s more about flavor and aroma characteristics.

Yes, the premium ginjo and daiginjo styles are usually better chilled, but that’s because the delicate flavor nuances and fruity, floral aromas that characterize these styles vanish when they’re heated. For most other styles, it really depends on the dominant flavor and aroma notes. For instance, heating can enhance the deep nutty and umami notes present in some junmai-grade sakes (junmai proper, not junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo, mind you).

“Earthy or rich [sakes] are going to be very interesting [heated],” says Jamie Graves, manager of the Japanese portfolio at Skurnik Wines. “But if it’s really fruity, or higher in alcohol—above 15% [or] 16% ABV—those generally don’t go as well [warm].”

A genshu that’s undiluted and bottled at a full fermentation strength of around 18% or 19% ABV, for example, is better served chilled. (Heating it might negatively accentuate the alcohol aroma.)

In addition to understanding which flavor profiles (and ABVs) benefit from heating or chilling, it’s important to consider exactly how hot or cool to serve different grades and styles of sake. As a rule, cold sake should never be chilled below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), and hot sake should rarely go much higher than 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius)—and some sakes are best at room temperature.

Myth No. 2: Junmai daiginjo is the best sake.

While junmai daiginjo may often be the most expensive sake on menus, there are other comparably fine sakes. Junmai daiginjo fetches a high price, in part, because it tends to be the most labor-intensive to make and it’s the style that requires the largest volume of rice to produce. In making junmai daiginjo, brewers burn through significantly more raw material because more of the rice kernel gets polished away—at least 50 percent of each kernel has to be milled off. Some brewers go much further, polishing away 70, 80, or even 90 percent of the kernel.

“It’s very easy for something in the [brewing] process to go wrong, so if a brewery’s making junmai daiginjo, they put more time and effort into it and they’re more hands on,” Graves says. “Not that they’re not putting effort into their other sakes, but [junmai daiginjo] just requires more attention and labor. There are definitely advantages to [drinking it], and you get all of these really cool subtleties out of it, but you can find great examples of really fine sake, below that [grade] within the junmai grade or even in the kind of forgotten honjozo grade.”

Myth No. 3: Sake with added distilled alcohol is inferior.

There are two key defining features of honjozo-grade sake. The first is that at least 30 percent of the rice kernel must be milled away (giving it a rice polish ratio, or seimaibuai, of 70 percent or less). The other is that its recipe must include a small portion of added distilled alcohol. And given the latter, there’s a common misconception—even in Japan—that sake that includes added alcohol (beyond that derived from the rice fermentation alone) is of a lower quality.

The practice of adding spirit to sake dates back several hundred years. Initially, brewers discovered that adding some distilled alcohol to the mash helped prevent spoilage—long before the advent of pasteurization and modern refrigeration. In the years immediately after World War II, producers had another reason to fortify their products with distilled alcohol: A nationwide rice shortage forced them to supplement their sake with spirit. But today, distilled alcohol is added by preference.

“It’s a stylistic choice, really, as opposed to anything that makes [production] less expensive,” Graves notes. “[The added spirit] makes the texture a lot slicker, giving it this lovely, silky, oily quality. And it concentrates the aromas and gives the sake a little bit of weight, a little depth on the palate.”

The fact that the term “junmai,” meaning “pure rice,” is applied to those premium-grade sakes that don’t have added alcohol may also play a part in perpetuating this myth. Anything that’s not “pure” is considered “adulterated” and therefore “substandard.” But it’s hard to accuse a brewer who makes a ginjo or daiginjo—the non-junmai-prefixed sakes—of doing anything “substandard.”

Myth No. 4: Small sake cups are a single-serving size.

And speaking of things that are below standard, those small sake cups that are barely larger than a shot glass hold far less than a standard serving size of sake. But some bars and restaurants fill them and serve them as a full pour when a consumer orders by the glass. A full serving should be 180 milliliters, or roughly 6 ounces.

“It annoys me as a consumer,” says Michael John Simkin, principal of the sake marketing company MJS Sake Selections, “banging down $12 or $13 for a glass and getting a cup that’s got two, maybe three ounces in it. They think they’re serving a proper pour, but they’re really ripping people off.”

There’s actually some history to that 180 ml size. It was the standard unit—or —of a single serving of rice typically measured in a small wooden box called a masu. The masu is more familiar now as a sake drinking vessel (it became such because back in the day, Japanese drinkers needed cups and there were a lot of those boxes around). Many are still made of wood, but plastic ones are also common. You may be familiar with the tradition of the overflowing masu. The server continues to pour even after the sake starts to spill over into a saucer beneath the masu—symbolizing the restaurant’s generosity and the owner’s appreciation of your business.

Sake bottles themselves are based on multiples of 180. The standard container is 720 ml (180 times four), not the usual 750 ml size that’s common for most wines and spirits. The giant, magnum-style bottles known as isshobin are 1.8 liters (180 times 10).

Those small cups that some venues try not-so-generously to pass off as individual servings are actually supposed to foster interaction among guests or business associates. Guests are meant to continuously fill those cups for each other, never pouring for themselves.

As approachable as sake has become for a growing number of U.S. consumers, it remains one of the least understood beverages on the market. It’s still a niche category where misinformation can often obscure actual information. Distinguishing the two could mean the difference between a thoroughly unpleasant consumer experience and one that encourages further exploration among enthusiastic imbibers.

Jeff Cioletti is the author of the books The Year of Drinking Adventurously, Beer FAQ, and the upcoming The Drinkable Globe. He is the founder of the beverage travel video site The Drinkable Globe and a frequent contributor to a number of publications, including FSR Magazine and Beverage Media. Jeff is a Certified Sake Adviser and the winner of two North American Guild of Beer Writers awards.