Have Japan on your bucket list? One of the best ways to travel—without actually traveling—is through taste. And what better way to experience Japan than by enjoying its national drink: sake. Discover the best sake brands according to Masakatsu Yatabe, Head Sommelier at The Tokyo EDITION, Toranomon.
What is sake?
Sake (aka nihonshu), is a Japanese alcohol made with fermented rice. Not a wine nor a beer, sake is in a league all of its own and the way it is brewed and the ingredients that give the many different sake varieties their unique flavor, character, scent, and taste. Deeply weaved into Japan’s culture and history, sake is typically served in small porcelain cups during religious festivities, ceremonies, special events, national holidays, and of course socially, especially as a complement to sushi and sashimi. Today, sake has become so popular, it’s almost rivaling wines on the menus of Michel-starred restaurants around the world.
How is sake made?
It may differ from sake to sake, but usually, the rice is polished, washed, soaked, and steamed. Then, the brewer adds koji (a fungus that breaks the starches in the rice into sugars that can be fermented), water and yeast, before the fermentation process begins. After the sake is filtered, pasteurized, and aged before being bottled.
How is the quality of sake measured?
The gold standard of sake is an A-list rating known as Junmai Daiginjo. Achieving a high rating depends on the rice polishing ratio—typically, the higher percentage the outer portion of the core is milled off, the purer (and more expensive) the sake. Junmai Daiginjo sakes have a 50% polishing ratio to deliver an ideal blend of refined taste and acidity.
Best Sake Brand: Kamoshibito Kuheiji
The Perfect Sip: Kamoshibito Kuheiji now appears on the menu of many three-Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. For more than 300 years, this brand has been produced by the Banjo Jozo brewery in Nagoya. In their collection, try the “Human” sake, infused with notes of acacia honey.“Its pleasant scent raises expectations that are not typical of sake,” notes Yatabe.
Food Pairing: Pairs well with rich cheeses, or a creamy sauce dish.
Sake Brand: Sawanoi
The Perfect Sip: Founded in 1702, Sawanoi is named after its location in Sawai Tokyo, an area known for its clear water. Sawanoi’s Junami Ginjo sake line is made using the traditional Kimoto method (a painstakingly longer brewing process that allows it to fight off bacteria and ferment naturally) to create a robust, earthy brew. As for the style, this is a full-bodied sake with notes of red fruit plum wine, lychee, and yellow apple. “The scent is a little strong but it has a very gentle taste and impressive crisp aftertaste, ” notes Yatabe.
Food Pairing: To complement the flavors of this sake, pair it with roast pork, ribs, or soy sauce chicken dishes.
Sake Brand: Miyavi Sake
The Perfect Sip: Miyavi Sake is the result of a collaboration between a historic sake brewery in Kyoto and Japanese Samurai guitarist Miyavi who became fascinated by the taste, aroma, and traditional brewing techniques of the sake being produced when he toured the brewery. Like a sweet flower, the fresh and fruity taste of the Miyavi Sake Light Junmai is a low alcohol pure rice sake perfect to enjoy as an aperitif.
Food Pairing: Best enjoyed with sweet dishes as this sake tends to be on the drier side. It also pairs well with hiyayakko (a cold dish of tofu with onion and soy sauce), salted fish entrails, seafood with a sake marinade, fish cake, pickles, ohitashi, and vinegar seasoned dishes.
Sake brand: Shichiken
The Perfect Sip: Shichiken Brewery is located in Hakuto City, an area known for its pristine water source in the heart of Japan. The brand’s Sparkling Sake has a silky, slightly sweet taste with a refreshing sharpness. “This sparkling sake has a refreshing scent like a green apple that gives you a fluffy feeling and gorgeous lingering taste,” says Yatabe.
Food Pairing: Best paired with light dishes—try white fish sashimi, carpaccio, Ohitashi (boiled greens in bonito flavored soy sauce), fish broiled with salt, olives, fatsia sprouts, avocado and seafood salad, chop suey, mountain vegetable tempura, and fresh fruit.