Myth #1: Sake is highly alcoholic
It's easy to see why people would think this - sake is traditionally served in tiny cups about the same size as shot glasses.
For other drinks, alcohol content tends to bear an inverse relationship to the size of the glass, which balances out the amount of alcohol consumed. Beer (around 3.5% to 10%) comes in large glasses, wine (5.5% to 23%) in medium-sized ones, and spirits like vodka or gin (around 40%) in tiny ones.
So by that logic, sake should be a spirit?
Truth: Sake is around 15-16% alcohol
Low-alcohol sake (including a lot of sparkling sake) can have as little as 8% abv, and the strongest styles only go up to 20%.
Sake is fermented like beer and wine, with yeast consuming sugars and producing alcohol. However, the yeast die off when the alcohol percentage becomes higher than they can stand, which puts a natural ceiling on the alcohol content.
Spirits like vodka, gin or whisky are distilled, a process where water is removed from the liquid to concentrate the alcohol - this is what allows them to have alcohol levels higher than the 20% or so that yeast can generate on their own.
Sake is not distilled, so its alcohol content is always in a similar range to wine (slightly higher due to the yeast used).
So why the tiny cups?
The delicate cups actually play a part in the Japanese customs of hospitality and reciprocity. If your glass is small, it gives your host or drinking partner the opportunity to refill it for you. And vice versa, you have plenty of opportunities to pour for someone else.
If you want to try sake but don't have any of the traditional small cups, a wine glass is just as good! This is especially true for the more aromatic varieties, where the shape of a wine glass is better suited to capturing the aroma and letting you smell before you taste.
Myth #2: Sake is always drunk hot
When sake was first introduced in early Japanese restaurants, it was often served warm and that association is still attached to it today.
Truth: Sake can be served at a range of temperatures
Some sake should never be heated. Delicate, aromatic styles like ginjō or daiginjō will be ruined as their volatile components evaporate at higher temperatures, causing the sake to lose its aroma and lighter flavours.
The key to heating is umami - the "fifth taste" recently discovered by the West that embodies all that is meaty and savoury.
Think slow-cooked meat, savoury broth, mushrooms, and even Marmite or Vegemite. Sake made with more of the rice grain, such as honjōzō or some junmai, have much more umami than styles with most of the grain milled away.
These styles of sake develop an entirely new flavour profile when heated as the lower savoury notes are brought out by the heat.
When should you heat sake?
The brewer usually provides guidance on how to consume their sake, so look for instructions on the bottle.
If there aren't any (or if the label is not translated):
- Try ginjō or daiginjō chilled.
- Try other styles straight from the fridge and sip to taste as they come up to room temperature - see how the flavour changes and make a note of when it's just right!
- Try honjōzō and other stronger styles warm as well - experiment and see what you like.
How to heat sake
- Put the sake into a heat-proof container, allowing some room for expansion at the top, and cover with cling film. Fill a pan with enough water to come halfway up the container and heat. After the water has boiled, turn off the heat and place the heat-proof container in the hot water for 2-3 minutes.
- Alternatively, put the sake in a microwaveable container, cover with cling film and heat at 600W for 20 seconds. Remove, swirl the liquid and return to the microwave for another 20 seconds. This ensures the sake is evenly heated.
- The sake should be around 40-45°C. Enjoy!
Myth #3: Sake only goes with Japanese food
Again, this can be traced to the way sake was first introduced, almost as a novelty drink in Japanese restaurants.
It certainly developed alongside Japanese food, and the characteristic differences between sake from different regions in Japan is often put down to differences in local dishes - light flavours and fish in coastal areas or heavier, meatier fare in the mountains. Until recently, a lot of sake production was mainly for local markets so it was created to match local tastes.
And as its flavours don't map on to any familiar drinks in the West, it can be hard to imagine what to have it with.
Truth: Sake can be paired with almost everything
It's interesting to see that although the flavours are very different, one place where you see a lot of sake is in the wine world. For example, the International Wine Challenge has had a sake category since 2007, and there are rumours of more wine competitions including sake. So, one place to start is foods that go with wine, and there are many reports of sake matching well with cheese.
Despite its relatively simple production, variations in the brewing process produce a wide range of flavours, again not unlike wine. Robust styles like yamahai or kimoto, which use ambient microbes in the brewery to kick-start the fermentation, can stand up to stronger flavours like game. You can also alter the temperature of the sake to bring out its umami to harmonise it with meaty, savoury dishes. And aged sake, koshu, develops wonderful flavours that are just asking to be paired with dark chocolate.
How do you pair sake with food?
A very general rule of thumb is to consider the intensity and type of flavours in the food, and choose a style of sake that should pair well with them. There's such a huge variation even within styles that it's not guaranteed to work perfectly, but it's a place to start.
- Delicate flavours, e.g. fish: delicate, aromatic styles like daiginjo or ginjo
- Strong flavours, e.g. game: robust styles like kimoto, yamahai or honjozo
- Sweet flavours, e.g. chocolate: sweet styles like aged koshu or cloudy nigori