by The Culinistas

If you’ve been sleeping on sake, it’s time to rise and shine. We can’t get enough of the stuff, which is why we sat down with The Culinistas co-founder Jill Donenfeld fresh off of reading The Japanese Sake Bible for a 101 on everything you need to know to get you started on your journey to becoming a sake connoisseur. 

Here are a few tips, tricks and terms to get you started. Check out the recipe for our “Mikan of the Minds” cocktail below.

What is sake made from?

Sake is made from water, koji (fermented rice), yeast, rice and (sometimes) brewers alcohol.

The koji acts as a starter to fermentation and the yeast aids in that process. The rice supplies the sugars/food source for the fermentation process.

How to read a sake label

Like any wine label, deciphering the terms on a sake bottle can feel overwhelming for the uninitiated. You’ll stay ahead of the pack by knowing a few key terms and descriptors. 

When it comes to ingredients, futsu-shu is sake that contains brewers alcohol. Honjozo contains a limited amount of brewers alcohol and junmai means alcohol only comes from rice fermentation. Look out for genshu if you want the sake not cut with water; futsu-shu, honjozo, and junmai can be genshu.

Filtration is another important sake characteristic. Doburoko refers to unfiltered sake. Nigori and muroka are both filtered, but the former is filtered with a broad mesh which leads to a cloudier appearance; the latter will be clear. 

The term nama means the sake is unpasteurized and hiire means pasteurized. While hiire sake is much more common, if you purchase a bottle of nama you’ll want to keep it in the fridge so it stays fresh.

Like scotch or bourbon, sake can also be aged. Shinshu means a new sake (from the current season), while koshu refers to aged sake. Taruzake is sake that’s been aged in a cedar cask.

Tokubetsu means, well, a sake that’s something special. This can be difficult to define but can refer to the treatment of the rice, the process, etc.

How to drink sake

Now for the fun part: down the hatch! Sake flavors run the gamut from dry (karakuchi) to sweet (amakuchi). There’s tanrei sake, which is a crisp and clean sake, while tanrei karakuchi is a light and dry sake. There’s no right or wrong when choosing — only personal preference. Our best advice is to try your way through them to find your fave(s). 

Sake can be served at a variety of temperatures. Hot sake is called kanzake or atsukan. Room temperature sake is hiya or jouon and cold sake is reishu. There are many variants within each of these categories (like specific heats and specific ways of chilling, like snow-chilled — how, ahem, cool is that?!).

Sake can be served in a ceramic cup, glass cup or wine glass. When deciding which vessel to use, think about which type of sake you’re drinking. An “earthy” sake should be served in a ceramic glass while glass is best for chilled sakes. 

For special occasions sake is consumed from the masu cup, which is a box made of cedar. These boxes accentuate the taste of sake brewed in cedar (taruzake). There are two methods of drinking from masu: the overflow method and the glass-inside-the-box method (which we’ll refer to as GITB). For GITB, once filled, lift the glass, wipe the bottom, and drink. For the overflow method, drink directly from the box itself then pour the overflow back into the box to finish up. 

Now that you’ve read up on sake and know your vocab it’s time for the best part: taste testing. Kanpai!

Mikan of the Minds

Prep Time 2 mins

Serves 6 

1½ cups sake (junmai or junmai daiginjo)

2 cups tangerine juice

½ tsp orange blossom water

Calendulas or other orange flowers or petals, to garnish

1. Mix all ingredients together in a large pitcher. 

2. Serve over ice. See tips for garnish ideas. 

Pro tips: Sake varies in flavor quite a lot. When shopping, purchase a junmai or junmai daiginjo that is explained with descriptors such as crisp, dry finish, elegant or fresh. Notes of citrus would be a bonus. A few garnish ideas to get you started: calendulas or other orange flowers or petals, red currants, a tangerine twist or slice, or tangerine wheel dehydrated or baked to a crisp.