Japanese sake – or Nihonshu, as it’s called here – offers a spectrum of flavours and aromas. Most of what is exported is a clear liquid; however, sake can also be thick and creamy, or light brown in colour. The national beverage is in the DNA of the Japanese food and drink scene. In Tokyo, you can find sake in vending machines selling single portions in glass cups, or in introduction-only bars hidden away on backstreets without any signs. It is consumed on speeding bullet trains with a bento lunch box, at izakaya pubs and at traditional restaurants serving sushi or soba noodles.
There is no snobbery when it comes to drinking sake in Japan. Unlike wine, which varies widely in price, sake never gets too expensive. Cost usually depends on purity: the higher the price, the more the rice has been milled to remove the impurities in the husk, making the final wine more refined and elegant. Sake is generally drunk not from expensive glassware but from ochoko, small ceramic cups that are not ideal for taking in the aroma. Some restaurants may also have wine glasses, so feel free to ask.
When speaking to a sake sommelier, ask for things that are hard to find outside of Japan, such as namazake, or unpasteurised sake. A great treat is drinking seasonal sake: winter’s shiboritate, spring’s haruzake, summer’s natsuzake and autumn’s hiyaoroshi. Seasonal sakes pair well with seasonal dishes: try hiyaoroshi in the autumn with mushrooms and grilled Pacific saury, a rich, meaty fish. Seek out sparkling sake and the dessert-style kijoshu, which is reminiscent of Sherry, or aged koshu sake. Creamy styles nigorizake and doburoku can be slightly effervescent and naturally have rich rice notes. Remember what styles you like – junmaishu or daiginjo – so that you can look for similar sakes in the future.
Drinking sake at different temperatures draws out unique nuances. Ask for it to be served hot, and experience the changes in aroma and flavour as it cools down. Some izakaya specialise in warm sake, which draws out the umami flavour and pairs much better with fermented foods.
There are very few rules when it comes to drinking sake. Tell the shop the style you prefer, or ask for an osusume (“recommendation”). Last but not least, remember that kampai means “Cheers”.
Where to try sake
Near Shinjuku station is Know by Moto, an izakaya with knowledgeable staff and a seasonal menu of small, sake-friendly bites. (Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 3-26-14, B1; +81 3 3225 7788)
Japanese prefectures are like US states. Flights of sake are available at prefectural shops that showcase local specialities. These outlets, called antennas, sell sake or shochu and food. Try Coco Shiga (Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi 2-7-1; +81 3 6281 9871; cocoshiga.jp) and Toyama Kan (Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi-Muromachi 1-2-6; +81 3 3516 3020).
In a quiet part of Tokyo, Wagashi Kunpu is a unique shop that pairs traditional wagashi confectioneries with sake. (Bunkyo-ku, Sendagi 2-24-5; +81 3 3824 3131)
Sake breweries have opened up shops that also sell sake by the glass or flight. Dassai is famous for brewing a sake from rice that is milled down to only 23% of the original grain size. (Chuo-ku, Ginza 5-10-2; +81 3 6274 6420)
Sennen Kojiya specialises in fermented foods and sake from Hakkaisan in Niigata. (Minato-ku, Azabu-Juban 1-8-9; +81 3 6277 8578; sennen-koujiya.jp/shop)
Sake pairs well with French cuisine at Michelin-starred Narisawa. (Minato-ku, Minami-Aoyama 2-6-15; +81 3 5785 0799)
Modern Japanese restaurant Den presents a variety of cups made by different artists. (Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 2-3-18; +81 3 6455 5433)
Sake no Ana in Ginza has sake warmers on each table. (Chuo-ku, Ginza 3-5-8, Ginza Rangetsu B1; +81 3 3567 1133)