a wall of traditional sake

Have you ever noticed that people who say they don’t like sweet wines — we’re talking Port, demi-sec Champagne, or Sauternes here, not 90s-style white zin — are often the ones who have never actually tried them? (Or, if they have, it was, perhaps, a sneaky beverage called Cold Duck.)

I have found that the same goes for sake. People who don’t like it have either never tried it or have been forced to base their opinion on the sake version of Mad Dog 20/20. It’s easy to see why this could happen. For one thing, sake can be confusing. It comes in a variety of styles, flavor profiles and, of course, price points. And drinking it hot, cold, or at room temperature depends on the style. But here’s the thing: good sake is aromatic, clean tasting and not bitter, and terrific by itself or with a wide variety of food.

Henry Sidel, a New York-based sake expert — the Japan Sake Brewers Association has named him a Sake Samurai — says that first-time drinkers should start with Ginjo sake, which has a refined freshness and a bit of fruit. “There’s a great selection of Ginjo sakes in the $30-$45 range,” he says. “Just be sure to open it within a year of the brewing date, which is on the label, and don’t let it hang around for longer than a week. Freshness matters with sake!”

Sake to Try

Dassai Blue 50 Junmai Daiginjo

a green bottle of dassai blue 50 sake
Courtesy, Dassai Blue

In September 2023, Dassai, a fourth-generation, family-owned craft brewery in Yamaguchi, Japan, opened a Hyde Park, New York, brewery and tasting room to launch its new US brand, Dassai Blue. Rich and fruity but offering a generous dose of umami, Dassai Blue 50 is made from Yamada Nishiki rice polished to the 50% level.

Hakkaisan Yukimuro 3-Year Snow-Aged Junmai Daiginjo

a white bottle of junmai daigingo sake
Courtesy, Umami Mart

Aged in an insulated, snow-filled room, this creamy, pear-scented, super-premium brew shines with sushi. Junmai Daigingo is the highest quality of sake and contains no additives. The striking white bottle will add some interest to your beverage cart too.

Hakurakusei ‘The Connoisseur’ Junmai Ginjo

bottle of Hakurkusei the connoisseur junmai ginjo
Courtesy, Skurnik Wines & Spirits

New to sake? Try this zippy brew, which should be served in a regular wine glass (to capture fleeting aromas of grapefruit and melon), and with substantial dishes like braised fish and vegetables in the vaguely sweet nimono-style and chicken liver mousse. “The Connoisseur” is a creation of Nanami Watanabe, a 20-something, award-winning female brewer.

Bijofu ‘Hina’ Junmai Daiginjo

bijofu hina junmai daiginjo
Courtesy, Skurnik Wines & Spirits

Though drier and lighter than most, Junmai Daiginjo, “Hina” offers surprising depth and a tingly, spritzy finish. To really taste the citrus, serve this sake as you would white wine, at about 50 degrees. It’s terrific with oysters as well as tuna and raw calamari.

Sawaya Matsumoto Omachi

sawaya matsumoto omachi
Courtesy, Skurnik Wines & Spirits

Just like Chardonnay produces very different wine from Syrah, rice varieties are part of what shape sake’s flavor, texture, and aroma. Case in point is Omachi, a 19th-century variety that produces earthy, rich, highly aromatic sakes. This sake, though layered and complex, has a bright character that helps it stand up to soy-braised dishes.

Matsu no Tsukasa ‘Azolla 50’ Junmai Daiginjo

mansu no tsukasa azolla 50 junmai daiginjo
Courtesy, Skurnik Wines & Spirits

It’s all about tradition at this Shiga-area brewery, where rice is grown without the use of pesticides or industrial fertilizers, and weeds are controlled using water ferns to block light to potential weeds. The ancient kimoto brewing process allows the sake to slowly develop its own lactic acid, resulting in tropical notes and a lovely acidic finish that stands up to everything from salmon to blue cheese.

Where to Drink Them

 Zilla Sake, Portland, Oregon

close up shot of a bottle of sake at zilla sake
Courtesy, Zilla Sake

Thanks to owner and sushi chef, Kate Koo, Portland’s first dedicated sake bar is also a top destination for sushi. Koo is also responsible for the restaurant’s 90 sakes, which showcase the spirit’s versatility and food friendliness.

Sakagura, New York

This zen-inducing space offers more than a calm oasis from the bustle of midtown Manhattan: each of the more than 250 sakes on offer have been carefully curated to offer a wide array of experiences. Try them alone or with the recommended pairings.

The Koji Club, Brighton, Massachusetts

wine glasses on a wooden table with a vase of flowers in the background at koji club
Courtesy, The Koji Club

There are lots of places to sip sake in the Boston area, but only Koji Club rotates its offerings by season, swapping out some of the brightest sake for more comforting bottles. Half pours encourage experimentation among the dozens of sakes, including one from Mexico. Snacks, which include caviar, flavored saltines, and Basque cheesecake, are equally creative.

Featured image by Crystal Kay via Unsplash