How To Impress Your Dinner Guests With Japanese Sake


Serve Sake For An Elegant Alternative To “The Usual”


Looking for an appealing change from your regular bottle of wine? 

Pairing Japanese sake with your next lunch or dinner might be just the ticket to a exquisite new discovery.  This guide covers everything from the types and styles of sake to how to pair sake with your meals, and even how to serve and drink this unique beverage. 

Get ready to surprise and delight your guests with this refined change of habit.


What is Sake?


Sake is considered the national drink of Japan.


Considered the national drink of Japan, nihou-shu, or sake as we know it, has recently stirred the fascination of the world.

Sake is an elegant beverage that deserves the same attention and respect as wine.  Yet, it is unique.


Sake’s Simple Ingredients


Sake is made from four simple ingredients.


Made from four simple ingredients: rice, kōji (a desirable mould on rice that produces enzymes to convert rice starch into fermentable sugars), yeast and water, its production is far from simple.

Sake undergoes a process called parallel fermentation, in which the conversion of starch into sugars and the fermentation of those sugars into alcohol happen at the same time.  By this very process, sake differentiates itself from wine and beer.


Sake is made from rice, kōji, yeast and water.


Styles of Sake


Sake is available in a variety of grades and styles.


Sake comes in an array of styles, which are further categorized through a grading system determined by how much the rice has been polished.  The more each grain is polished to its starchy core, known as shinpaku, the higher it is graded.  The polishing ration is often noted on sake labels as a percentage.

For example, one that reads 40 percent is sake made from rice of which only 40 percent remained after polishing.

A Homjozo, which is considered the entry level in premium sake, is required to have a polishing ratio of at least 70 percent, while a Ginjō needs to be at least 60 percent.  At the very top of this tier is Daiginjō, which requiresa polishing ratio of at least 50 percent!


Sake’s grading system is determined by how much the rice has been polished.



The Optional Fifth Ingredient


Remember the four ingredients of sake? Jōzō, or distilled brewer’s alcohol, is an optional fifth ingredient. 

While it could be added to increase the yield in mass-produced table sakes, many quality-conscious producers add jōzō alcohol to enhance the aromatics of their sake.  Aroma compounds are soluble in alcohol and therefore more expressive in its presence.


Distilled brewer’s alcohol may be added to enhance the aromatics of sake.


Junmai, meaning pure (jun) rice (mai), is sake that has no jōzō alcohol added.  Likewise, a Ginjō or Daiginjō without this addition, is called Junmai Ginjō or Junmai Diaginjō, respectively.


North American Sake Market


Try sparkling sake as an aperitif, rich or spicy dishes or dessert


Among the styles available in the North American market are:



Nigori is coarsely filtered sake that is cloudy in appearance. 


Sparkling Sakes

Sparkling Sakes have just what the name suggests:  bubbles! 


Nama or Nama-zake

This type of sake is unpasteurized, and must always be stored in refrigeration. 



Genshu is sake that has no water added after fermentation to dilute its alcoholic strength.


Video:  Brief Introduction to Sake


Superb Sake Food Pairings


Japan has a food-rich culture, so it’s no surprise that sake goes well with many types of food. In fact, sake is much more tolerant of different foods than wine is. Sake goes particularly well with salty foods, which make the drink seem sweeter and fruitier.

Umami aromas (found in mushroom, tomato, or parmasan cheese) can make sake seem drier and more bitter, but any negative effects are cancelled out by salt (often found in umami food).


Sake pairs well with so much more than sushi!


It is said, “Sake does not fight with food.”  It pairs well with a variety of cuisines, not only Japanese food! 

Delicate and elegant, lighter-bodied Ginjōs are perfect with silky textured foods, whereas the bolder umami-rich Honjōzōs and Junmais pair better with earthier, more robust flavors.


“Sake does not fight with food.”  … It pairs with a variety of cuisines.



Sake goes particularly well with salty foods, which make the drink seem sweeter and fruitier.


Junmai Daiginjo

Junmai Daigninjo pairs well with seafood such as scallops, flaky white fish or raw oysters.



Ginjo is perfect with spicy cuisines such as Indian food, but also excellent with a hearty steak.




Nigori is delicious paired with creamy foods, such as risotto, pasta, chowder, butter chicken or even cheesy pizza.



Try Nama-Zake with umami-rich dishes, tomato sauces or Mediterranean cuisine


Sparkling Sake 

Sparkling sake is versatile, and will pair nicely with a variety of food from creamy brie to chicken wings or sweet and sour pork.


Video:  Sake and Food Pairing


Chilled or Hot Sake?


Sake can be served at different temperatures, from chilled to hot.

One may sacrifice the delicate aromas in a Ginjō to heat, but instead its richer cereal notes can be enjoyed to great satisfaction. 

Similarly, a chilled Honjōzō may taste drier than a warm one.  Therefore, one can enjoy different expressions of a single sake at various temperatures.

The tradition of warming up sake actually started a long time ago prior to all of the advances in technology and skills now enjoyed by the sake making industry.

The sake produced at that time was not as refined or elegant as the sake produced nowadays and warming served the purpose of rounding out the rough edges and making the sake easier to drink.

However, nowadays you can enjoy many different sake at different temperatures. It is said that there are three different drinks in each bottle of sake as your perception of the flavor and aromas alters with the temperature at which the sake is served.

You can enjoy sake at a wide range of temperatures and can even notice a difference in flavor when a glass of chilled sake starts coming up to room temperature.


Which Sake Should Be Warmed?


Futsushu, Honjozo and Junmai sake are all suitable for warming.


Futsushu, Honjozo and Junmai sake are usually all suitable for warming and, as a rule of thumb, you do not usually warm up Ginjo and Daiginjo grades of sake as these are brewed to be aromatic, and warming the sake will mean that the aromas will evaporate.

That said, there are always exceptions to the rule and Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo can often be suitable for warming.

However, one type of sake which you should not warm is sake with the word “Nama” in it as this is sold either completely unpasturised or partly pasturised, so warming this sake will completely change the style and flavor of the sake from that which the brewer intended.


Don’t warm Nama sake – it should be served chilled.


Video:  How to Serve and Drink Sake


Sake Shelf Life


While most should be enjoyed young, sake offers very good shelf life and can stay in condition for up to two weeks after opening if stored in a cool, dark place. 


Sulphite Free and Gluten Free Sake


And being naturally sulphite-and gluten-free, sake can serve as an option for people with such sensitivities. 


Serving Sake


Some things in life have a natural charm, the ability to draw you in and absorb your attention to the exclusion of all else, if even for only a few moments.

The combination of good sake and fine Japanese yakimono (pottery) is one such simple joy.

Japanese sake is typically sold in large bottles, but it is poured into smaller vessels or ceramic flasks, known as “tokkuri”.

Some things in life have a natural charm, the ability to draw you in and absorb your attention to the exclusion of all else, if even for only a few moments.

The combination of good sake and fine Japanese yakimono (pottery) is one such simple joy.

Shown: Perfect 5 Piece Ceramic Sake Set


With sake (as with beer), pouring for others is a common custom in Japan that takes a bit of getting used to but has a wonderful charm and appeal once ingrained. Small cups called ochoko or guinomi, and and a larger serving flask or vessel called tokkuri allow for frequent refill opportunities, each of which is a mini-ritual of social bonding.

Although there is much more to yakimono than only tokkuri (flasks) and guinomi (cups), the overlap of this special niche of the pottery world with the world of sake buzzes with a magic all its own.


The combination of good sake and fine Japanese yakimono a simple joy.


Common Sake Vessels 



Tokkuri are ceramic flask used to warm and serve sake, with a narrow neck for retaining heat. Tokkuri come in all shapes and sizes.



Ochoko are small sake cups of countless variety, color and shapes . Cup typically broadens at neck to allow the fragrance of the sake to waft gently upward. 



Shown: Crystal Edo Kiriko Guinomi


Guinomi are small cups – often fluted at the edge – a bit bigger than ochoko. Great fun to collect as works of art.



Masu (drinking boxes)

These are small square cedar boxes holding 180 ml, originally designed as a rice measure.

Most people no longer drink from masu, as the smell and flavor of the wood can overpower the delicate flavors of today’s premium sake. 


Sake Pouring Etiquette 


In formal situations, the tokkuri is held with two hands when pouring. Likewise , the person receiving should lift his or her glass off the table, holding it with one hand and supporting  it with the other.  

The more formal the situation the more such etiquette is observed. Even in informal situations, pouring sake for one’s table companions is the norm, although pouring and receiving parties generally revert to the more natural one-hand grip.

Among close friends, after the first round or so, all pouring rituals are often abandoned for convenience. Pouring for yourself is known as tejaku.

Your companions may feel an uncontrollable urge to refill your cup when it is empty. Resisting their entreaties for more is generally futile, so the best approach is to allow your cup to be filled and then take tiny, tiny sips so that it never goes dry.

Proper sake pouring etiquette has many nuances that one should be mindful of:





  • Always pour sake for others, but don’t fill your own cup. It’s best to allow someone else to pour and fill your sake cup for you, even if you were the one that poured sake for everyone else in your party.


  • In general, when pouring sake for others, make sure to place two hands on the tokkuri ceramic flask, regardless of how small it is. If for some reason only one hand is on the flask, be sure to place your free hand on the arm that is pouring to show respect.


  • On the receiving end of the sake, one should cradle the small ochaku cup in the palm of one hand, and gently rest the fingers of the free hand on the side of the cup.  The cup is then lifted slightly towards the pourer. Again, this shows respect.


Shown: Grey Sky Art Sake Set


  • If you’re drinking sake in a work or business related function, be mindful of seniority and status when pouring sake. When pouring for a colleague who has seniority or higher level status, make sure to use the two-handed technique as mentioned above.


  • If you are pouring sake for someone who is your junior or lower level status, only one hand may be used to hold the tokkuri ceramic flask and pour sake.


  • Similarly, if the recipient of the sake is of higher status, their ochaku cup may be held with only one hand. However, if the sake pourer is of higher status, the recipient should cradle their ochaku cup using the two handed technique as described above.


  • If you’re drinking sake among friends and the situation is informal, it’s not uncommon for one-handed pouring (especially amongst male company), and holding the ochaku cup with one hand, but always remember to lift the cup off the table and hold it towards the pourer.


Sake Cocktails


Despite resistance from traditionalists, the current cocktail culture has zealously embraced sake.

An expertly mixed drink shouldn’t make you want to lie down and take a nap afterward.

Just ask Drew Lazor and the editors of Punch, who in their  book, Session Cocktails – Low Alcohol Drinks for Any Occasion, are exploring a whole world of low-alcohol drinks where you don’t have to hesitate about ordering a second round.

The book’s recipes come courtesy of the industry’s best mixologists, including Kenta Goto of Bar Goto in NYC.

Here, he switches out the gin in a classic Southside cocktail for mellow sake, building on a base of elderflower liqueur, shiso leaves, lemon juice and a touch of tequila.


The Far East Side  photo credit: Bar Gota


The Far East Side


Reprinted with permission from Session Cocktails: Low-Alcohol Drinks for Any Occasion, by Drew Lazor and the Editors of PUNCH, copyright © 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


Yield: 1 cocktail

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: N/A

Total Time: 5 minutes


  • 2 ounces sake
  • ¾ ounce elderflower liqueur
  • ½ ounce tequila
  • ¼ ounce lemon juice
  • 3 shiso leaves



Combine all the ingredients in a mixing tin and use a muddler to lightly crush the shiso leaves. Strain into a mixing glass, add ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into a coupe.



Final Thoughts

With so many virtues, it is not surprising the discerning palates of the world are seeking sake today. 

Pick one that piques your interest and start your own journey in discovering sake.

PS.  My valued source, and recommended for further reading is  The Sake Handbook:  All the Information You Need to Become a Sake Expert by John Gauntner

Kampai! (Cheers!)



Hey!  Thanks for dropping by …   

I’d love to hear your thoughts – really! 

Drop me a comment below!




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