A friend emailed to ask for a recommendation for “an everyday drinking sake, of the sort we might find in the UK — which, obviously, is a geographical uncertainty for you, but! Is there a type or sort of sake that she might be able to find?” The geographical aspect definitely makes it tricky for me (being in the U.S. and all), so i’ll approach this a couple of ways.
general thoughts on everyday drinking sake
I have not yet been to Japan (a trip is in the works, but i’m not sure when it will actually come together), but here are some comments from my readings.
In Japan everyday table sake is generally called futsu or regyura (y’know, “regular”). Breweries make both the lower-grade regular sake and the higher-grade Special Designation Sake (so-called “premium” sake), and sales of regular sake in Japan far outnumber sales of the premium-grade stuff. On the other hand, i’m not sure how much of the regular/futsu sake is exported — i can’t find numbers right now, but i think much of the sake imported from Japan tends to be the higher-grade premium sake.
Regular/futsu sake is made with table rice (according to Vine Connections), whereas premium-grade sake is made with specialty sake rices.
One thing to be aware of when buying any sake from Japan anywhere outside of Japan is that the price is usually going to at least double (possibly triple) in price because of the importing process. For that reason, you may want to look for sake made in your country, if possible.
what you might find in the U.S.
U.S.-made sake is entirely findable1, tho’ many sake conoisseurs turn their noses up at it for various reasons.
For U.S.-made sake, you’ll most easily find bottles from these large breweries: Ozeki, Takara, Yaegaki2, Gekkeikan, SakeOne/Momokawa. These are all on the West Coast and have connections to established breweries in Japan.
Andy and i started with sake from SakeOne/Momokawa. It’s easily available in Washington State because SakeOne’s brewery is just south of Portland, Oregon. We also started our sake exploration with SakeOne’s products because there was a sake lounge just 1 block away from us that largely served Momokawa sake. Prices for SakeOne/Momokawa sake are generally in the upper-teens for a 720ml bottle.
For cheap drinking at home, we then worked our way downward to either Yaegaki (under $10 for a 1.8l bottle) or Takara’s Sho Chiku Bai (a little over $10 for a 1.8l bottle).
general sake terms you’ll find on the bottle
If you’re looking for a sort of everyday drinking sake such as one might drink as one’s everyday drinking sake in Japan, you’re probably looking for a cheap sake. I love cheap sake! I love to wrap my hands around a cup of warm, cheap sake on a rainy winter day and sip it slowly. Warm cheap futsu/regular sake is probably what you’ve had at sushi restaurants.
A bottle of futsu/regular sake might not have anything on it to call it out as such. It’s been a rare bottle of sake that i’ve seen that clearly calls out “futsu” on the label.
If “warm sushi bar sake” is not exactly the flavor you’re going for, here are some tips on understanding the terms used on sake labels. I’ll again emphasize that these are terms for premium sake, so we are talking about a jump in price (especially outside Japan). For any sake with any of these terms, i’d expect to be paying at least $25 (U.S. dollars) for a 720ml bottle, unless it’s made by one of the large U.S. breweries referenced above.
Here are some terms to avoid until you’ve become more familiar with sake:
- aged: Unlike other fine boozes, sake is not usually aged. Sometimes it is! And it gets really interesting and fascinating! (I tasted one once that was quite port-like. MMMMMMM.) But probably not what you’re going for in an everyday sake.
- nigori: “Nigori” means “coarsely filtered” and it will look like rice milk. Because, besically, it’s alcoholic rice milk — whereas normally all the rice particles are entirely filtered out, in “nigori” sake some are left behind. I love this type! But, again, not an everyday sake for most people.
- sparkling: This is a pretty modern type of sake. I like it a lot3! But not really an everyday sake.
Here are some (premium) sake grading terms you will likely encounter on (translated) labels:
- junmai: This means “pure rice” and means the sake is made only with rice, water, and yeast (koji). No additions are made — not brewer’s alcohol nor flavors of any sort.
- honjozo: This type of sake has a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added at the end of the sake-making process. This is unlike futsu/regular sake, which has a fair amount of brewer’s alcohol added. Honjozo sake is still considered a premium grade.
- ginjo: This is one of the terms that refers to how much the rice has been polished. All sake rice is polished to smooth away the outer shell of the rice kernels, but higher-grade sake is subjected to more and more polishing. Ginjo sake must be milled so that only 60% of the rice kernel remains.
- daiginjo: Daiginjo sake rice has been polished even more than ginjo rice. Only 50% (sometimes less!) of the rice kernal remains. Daiginjo sake is really amazing, and also equivalently expensive.
I also find this chart from Vine Connections to be useful and succinct.
In addition to terms about a sake’s grade, there are some terms about style — how it was made — that are useful:
- genshu: Genshu translates as “cask strength” and means the sake has not been diluted at the end of the process. This means the alcohol of a genshu sake is typically anywhere from 18% to 20%. I love the stuff (the depth and flavor can be amazing), but it can feel like a punch in the mouth.
- nama: Most sake is pasteurized twice before the consumer buys it. Nama sake is unpasteurized. The flavors cover a fascinating range, and the sake tends to have an effervescent zing. I love how lively and fresh this sake is. Nama sake (typically spelled as one word — namazake) is seasonal and is usually the 1st sake available once the brewery starts releasing its sake. I usually start seeing it in Seattle in late summer.
- yamahai/kimoto: All sake is made from rice, water, and yeast (koji). Most modern sake uses prepared yeast. But some breweries still use the old style where the rice is allowed to sit out collecting yeast from the air, like a sourdough bread starter. These styles are time-intensive, but tend to produce really fascinating flavors. Yamahai and kimoto sake tend to be my favorites (and often heat up really beautifully).
The grading and style terms can concatenate and stack on top of each other as well. One of my favorite sakes is Narutotai’s Ginjo Nama Genshu — all of which is translated thusly:
- Narutotai: The brand name.
- Ginjo: Means it’s been polished by at least 40% (leaving 60% of the rice kernel remaining).
- Nama: It’s unpasteurized.
- Genshu: It’s cask strength.
Potent stuff! It’s sold in a can that is often affectionately referred to as “the oil can”. I have a post about it that i’ll queue to go live in a day or 2 so i can link to it.
conclusions: To bring it back to everyday sake.
Point #1: “Everyday drinking sake” in Japan is futsu/regular sake and usually refers to the cheap stuff with lots of brewer’s alcohol added4.
Point #2: Outside of Japan, the Japan-made sake you’re going to find is more likely to be premium-grade sake. This means a price jump because of import fees. The price jump may take it out of your wallet’s “everyday drinking sake” range.
Point #3: Futsu/regular sake, while it may be “everyday drinking sake” in Japan, might not be the flavor you’re going for (especially if you already know that you don’t care for the “hot house sake” you’ve had in sushi restaurants). You may prefer the flavors and varieties available in premium-grade sake, but the price may be prohibitive. Unlike wine, it’s hard to find a table sake at a truly good price if you’re shopping outside of Japan.
What would Wrdnrd look for? I would sample junmai or honjozo sakes in my price range to get a sense of what i like. To find these terms, look either at the shelf label or the back label of the sake bottle (the front label is often still entirely in Japanese).
Many importers do a good job of providing a flavor profile on the back label, tho’ whether you agree with the profile can be hit or miss (sometimes they are spot on with what i’m tasting, other times the proposed flavors seem chosen by whim). If you’re fortunate to have a store with staff trained in sake, seek out a clerk to talk about what you like and don’t like.
Don’t be afraid to aim toward the bottom end of the price spectrum. In the U.S., for a Japan-made sake, that’s probably going to be mid-$20s. I’ve had some really enjoyable sake at that price. Conversely, i’ve been underwhelmed by daiginjo that cost $140 for a 720ml bottle (which i did not buy at that price, but had at a tasting).
It all comes down to what you personally prefer. Experiment as much as you’re able! Keep notes!
A caveat about age: Sake is meant to be drunk within a year or so of being bottled5 — you do not cellar sake to let it age further, as one might do with certain fine wines. There are a lot of considerations in whether a bottle of sake is “bad” — whether it was properly stored during shipment, at the distributor, by the seller — but here are some quick tell-tale signs to watch out for:
- Does it look brownish/grey and have sediment floating in it? I’d put it back on the shelf and move on. I once accidentally bought a bottle that looked this bad and took it back. Fortunately, the grocery store manager recognized that sake is not supposed to look that way, audibly gasped, and handed me a new bottle with no further questions asked. Feel free to hold it up to the light! With the exception of nigori sake, all sake should look clear. Nigori sake should look milky white (the rice particles do usually fall to the bottom).
- Is it more than a year old? This can be confusing, i’ll be honest, because some sake labels use the year of the emperor and some use Western years. So it might say 2012, 2011, &c. and include the month. Or it might say “24” (it should still include the month). The current emperor’s reign began in 1989, so that’s year 1. That makes 2012 = 24, 2011=23, and so forth. If the sake you’re looking at is more than a year old, i’d consider looking for a fresher bottle. It may be perfectly okay, but there’s also more opportunity for it to have gone a bit off. Some sake doesn’t have a (translated) year/month on it at all — which does not necessarily mean it’s inferior at all, but does make it a bit tricker to know when it was made.
What does sake taste like when it’s gone off? I find it tastes kind of cardboard-y.
That’s (more than) enough for now. As always, do feel free to ask any questions in the comments section!
Next post (not so big as this one) will probably be “what do i do with this bottle of sake??” — how to store it, how long it keeps, et cetera.
- If i could find bottles of Gekkeikan in liquor stores when i was living in small-town Central Pennsylvania a decade ago, then it really is findable most anywhere in the U.S. [↩]
- Currently the toji — a.k.a, brewmaster — for Yaegaki is one of the few women toji in the world. [↩]
- Okay, what sake don’t i like? [↩]
- With some exceptions. One of our favorite sakes is a futsu, but the rice has been polished to ginjo level. [↩]
- Another exception is nama sake, which should probably be drunk a little more quickly since it’s unpasteurized. [↩]