“Sake is built like a beer, but it drinks like a wine,” says Monica Samuels, director of sake and spirits at Vine Connections and a Sake Samurai, a title bestowed on experts by the Japan Sake Brewers Association. Japan’s rice-based elixir is brewed, and like beer, says Samuels, its texture, structure, and minerality are dependent on the water source—often a pure mountain spring. The freshness of the water begets a fresh drink.
That’s where the beer comparisons stop because largely non-carbonated sake has an alcohol content—and elegance—closer to that of wine. Yet, you can’t treat sake as you would sauvignon blanc. “Most have no tannins, and they’re low in acidity, so classic food pairings don’t work,” says Samuels. “It’s more about harmony: matching textures and layers of umami.”
How do you choose among sakes? “Price point is an easy start,” says sake sommelier Chizuko Niikawa, founder of the spirits consultancy Sake Discoveries. “In general, expensive sake is made with rice that’s been polished down 50 percent or more.” With the bran, proteins, and fat removed, the sake comes out “lighter-bodied and fragrant.” But if you’re looking for a bolder, earthier flavor, you might try a sake made from rice that’s been more gently milled. Whatever your preference, we recommend Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai for a classic and versatile choice.
The following is a list of the best sake to drink right now, according to the experts.
Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai
Region: Japan | ABV: 15.5% | Tasting notes: Vanilla, Herbs, Rice cake
Japan’s Niigata Prefecture is a snowy, mountainous place where, in general, the sake produced is clean, crisp, and dry. Sold in a fetching blue bottle, Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai has a rice-cake aroma with subtle, balanced flavors of vanilla and wild herbs resolving in a refreshing finish.
It exhibits loads of versatility. “A great summer sake served chilled, it’s also good warm,” says Niikawa. And it goes with a range of foods. “Paired with light, cold appetizers—sashimi or carpaccio—it’s perfect,” she says. “But try it, too, with something rich, like a creamy, buttery fish dish,” where each sip cleanses your palate.
Region: Japan | ABV: 17% | Tasting notes: Mushrooms, Plums, Cereal
“If you see ‘junmai’ on the label, the sake is made from just rice, water, yeast, and koji (rice inoculated with mold to break down the starches)—pure ingredients. If you don’t see ‘junmai,’ it contains added alcohol to fix the aroma or sharpness,” says Niikawa. “It’s not a bad thing, just a preference.” Junmai tends to be fuller-bodied and more assertively flavored. “If you like red wine or whiskey, I recommend it,” she says.
Samuels’ go-to in this category is Shichida. “Junmai should have good acidity, umami, and grain characteristics. It’s all about the rice,” she says. “Shichida’s signature style evokes toasted cereal, braised mushrooms, dark plums, and fresh cheese.” But it’s also quite versatile, “so you can have it at any temperature with foods like tacos al pastor or pizza, then again, with sashimi,” says Samuels.
Dewazakura Cherry Bouquet Oka Ginjo
Region: Japan | ABV: 15.5% | Tasting notes: Cherry blossom, Radish, Apricot
Made with rice polished to at least 60 percent of its original size, “‘ginjo’ means ‘premium,’ “so this sake is a little lighter-bodied and a little more fragrant,” says Niikawa. “If you are a beginner, I recommend a ginjo or junmai ginjo because it’s not crazy expensive, and it’s easy to pair with any type of food.”
“Ginjo needs to be a crowd-pleaser,” says Samuels, “and Dewazakura really embodies that.” From an award-winning brewery that sets the gold standard for being all-around good at every style, this ginjo has a balance of pronounced fruit and floral notes but also enough acidity and structure to please junmai lovers, notes Samuels.
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Nanbu Bijin "Southern Beauty" Sake
Region: Japan | ABV: 16.5% | Tasting notes: Passionfruit, Pineapple, Crisp and dry
“‘Dai’ means ‘big’ or ‘more,’ so daiginjo is light-bodied but more aromatic,” notes Niikawa. It is considered the most premium style of sake. Hailing from Northern Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, this highly refined and “fragrant” bottle makes it “easy to understand what daiginjo is and why it’s great,” says Niikawa. She likes it for its “beautiful passionfruit, mango, and pineapple fruit aromas,” the character and texture obtained from the local Gin Otome rice used to make it, and a very dry finish that gives it unbelievable balance.
Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto
Region: Japan | ABV: 15% | Tasting notes: Mushroom, Nuts, Milk
“I don’t know how they make it so inexpensively,” says Samuels of this budget-priced junmai sake produced using the kimoto method. An ancient means of preparing the yeast starter for fermenting the rice, kimoto is a labor-intensive technique.
In modern sake making, commercially produced lactic acid is added to the starter to help protect it from unwanted bacteria, but with kimoto, lactic acid is propagated naturally by beating the yeast starter with wooden poles. The technique adds complexity, says Samuels, and this sake unfolds in layers of cocoa, white mushroom, hazelnut, and sesame.
Kikusui Perfect Snow
Region: Japan | ABV: 21% | Tasting notes: Coconut, Cream, Rice
Nigori, meaning “cloudy,” is far less filtered than other sakes so that rice particles stay in the brew, resulting in a sweet, viscous, milk-colored brew. “It’s such a popular category,” says Samuels. “People do want its creamy, tropical fruit flavors, but there are levels of quality.” She suggests looking for a silky body and bright finish that offsets what can be a cloying taste.
Niikawa points to Kikusui. “If you are really a fan of super thick nigori, I highly recommend it,” she says. “It’s thick, but it’s great to use in cocktails.” With its full creamy texture and flavors of vanilla ice cream, coconut, and earthy rice, it’s terrific on the rocks with club soda and a squeeze of lemon or lime.
Yuki no Bosha “Cabin in the Snow”
Region: Japan | ABV: 16% | Tasting notes: Anise, Strawberry, White pepper
When shopping for a fruity sake, Samuels thinks of white wine. “Along with the fruitiness, you want enough acidity that the sake finishes crisp.” Cabin in the Snow is “really vibrant,” she says. “It jumps out of the glass with wild strawberry, cherry, and anise seed, but with a spicy, chewy white-pepper finish that keeps it from being saccharine.”
Niikawa is also a fan, especially when sipping this sake warm. “Along with berry and peach notes, it has a full, ricey body, so it’s great when heated. Its acidity gets rounder and gentler, and it feels so comfortable, like slipping into a hot bath.”
Ama No To Tokubetsu Junmai "Heaven's Door"
Region: Japan | ABV: 16.2% | Tasting notes: Mushroom, Sea salt, Baking spices
From a microbrewery in Akita, Japan, this popular tokubetsu junmai sake, meaning “special pure” sake, is made with rice polished to 60 percent. “It’s a little lighter than regular junmai,” says Niikawa. But its richness works well when heated. She suggests hanging onto the bottle awhile to allow it to age, bringing out its mushroomy character. “Warm with cheese, it’s great,” she says.
To heat sake properly, Samuel suggests a hot water bath. Fill a crockpot halfway with water, allow it to heat up, and then turn the pot off before placing the sake bottle inside. In a pinch, you can microwave it. But less is more, she cautions. “You can always make sake hotter, but once it’s too hot, you can’t rescue it.” A candy thermometer helps with achieving the perfect temperature of 120 degrees.
Masumi Yumedono Daiginjo "Mansion of Dreams"
Region: Japan | ABV: 17% | Tasting notes: Melon, Peaches, Grapes
If you’re drinking it chilled or on the rocks, look for a sake that has no trace of umami and a very low acidity, says Samuels. You want it fruit-forward, refreshing, and clean. On the higher end for sakes, Masumi Yumedono, meaning “Mansion of Dreams,” is a very juicy and bright daiginjo, she says.
All of its punchy character—grapes, berries, melon, peaches—is upfront, in the nose, and on the initial palate. Its light body, appealing sweetness, and heady aroma have garnered it gold medals in national competitions. Pair this ethereal sake with light sashimi and other delicate seafood dishes.
Tozai Typhoon Honjozo Junmai
Region: Japan | ABV: 14.9% | Tasting notes: Milk, Banana, Citrus peel
Samuels calls this bargain bottle a really good table sake. A style of sake called futsushu in Japanese, table sake is made from rice meant for eating—not from rice grown for sake—and polished minimally. That can result in a rough sip.
However, this futsushu is a honjozo. Its rice has been polished to a respectable 70 percent, and a touch of brewer’s alcohol has been added to smooth it out. “It tastes like banana nutbread, orange peel, fresh milk, and steamed rice,” says Samuels. In other words, it’s delicious any way you drink it.
Sho Chiku Bai Junmai
Region: California | ABV: 15% | Tasting notes: Caramel, Vanilla, Rice
Made in Berkeley, California, by a company whose headquarters are in Japan, this junmai is sold in magnum-sized bottles. Though it’s the type of sake you might find turned upside down in a warm sake dispenser at a sushi restaurant, Niikawa thinks it’s excellent. “When I moved to the United States 16 years ago, I wasn’t a big fan,” says Niikaway, “but to be honest, over the past five or six years, its quality has gotten way, way better, and now it’s great.”
She describes it as fuller-bodied with a pronounced rice flavor and some sweet notes of caramel, cotton candy, and vanilla that resolve to a textured, dry finish. It’s a versatile sake good for parties, daily sipping, and even cooking.
Kikusui Junmai Ginjo
Region: Japan | ABV: 15% | Tasting notes: Honeydew, Banana, Dry and crisp
It’s not that easy to find certified organic sake sold in the United States, says Niikawa. But Kikusui produces so many different types of sake that the brand has substantial reach across the country, and their organic sake, certified by the USDA, is widely available. A junmai ginjo, it is fairly dry with only muted fruit flavors—a bit of honeydew and banana.
Simple with just a bit of rice character and a short, brisk finish, this straightforward sake is easy for beginners to enjoy served at any temperature, especially when it’s paired with fresh cheeses, steamed seafood, and other hors d’oeuvres.
Gekkeikan Zipang Sparkling Sake
Region: Japan | ABV: 7% | Tasting notes: Pineapple, Lychee, Canteloupe
From one of the biggest sake producers out there, this fruity sparkler is lightly carbonated through secondary fermentation in a stainless steel tank. Great for a picnic, a party, or pairing with lots of spicy takeout, it’s a refreshing, low-alcohol libation with a soda-pop appeal that you can sip right out of its bottle straight from the fridge.
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Kiku Masamune Taru
Region: Japan | ABV: 15% | Tasting notes: Cedar, Rice, Crisp and dry
Easy to find and very reasonable price-wise, this old-fashioned Japanese soba restaurant classic is aged in Yoshino cedar casks for aromatic style. “If you like bourbon or other kinds of whiskey, you’ll enjoy its fruity aroma,” says Niikawa. Brewed using the kimoto method, it has the body to hold up for whiskey cocktail drinkers. And, Niikawa notes, it tastes great chilled or warm.
If you like your drinks fruity and fragrant, daiginjos like the Nanbu Bijin "Southern Beauty" (view it on Minibardelivery.com) will give you what you want. But if you’re more into umami flavors, go for a junmai like Shichida (find it at Tipsysake.com).
What to Look For
There are many styles of sake, among them finely crafted, perfumed daiginjo; mushroomy, characterful junmai; milky, sweet nigori; bubbly sparkling sake; and more.
Some styles are dictated by how much the rice used to make it is milled. Others have to do with whether the sake is filtered, has added alcohol, carbonation, etc. Still, others like kimoto sake have to do with the way the yeast starter is prepared. Try a range of bottles, and when you find a sake you like, go deeper into that style.
Sake should be made with pure spring water, high-quality rice, and carefully made koji. Though a touch of added alcohol is perfectly fine, the sake should not include other additives. Importers try hard to explain the sakes they bring into the country, so the brewery’s website or its importer’s website can yield information about the integrity of the product and the process by which it was made.
How is sake made?
Sake is made using four basic ingredients: rice, which is normally polished to remove the outer layers and expose the starchy interior; koji, a type of mold that grows on rice which aids in fermentation; yeast for fermenting; and water—lots of it.
The rice is milled, washed, steamed, and then inoculated with koji and yeast, then mixed with water to create a mash that ferments. Then the mash is pressed to extract the sake. After that, the sake may be filtered and pasteurized, mixed with some alcohol, or aged.
Does sake have the same ABV as wine?
Though some sakes, like the Gekkeikan Zipang Sparkling, are low in alcohol, most sake is higher in alcohol than wine. It clocks in around 15 percent to 18 percent ABV.
How do you know if you should drink it cold or hot?
Very delicate, floral daiginjo is not meant for heating. You lose all the fragrance that makes it so great that way. But pungent junmai and other sakes that are made from rice that’s been milled less can hold up to the heat and still deliver wonderful flavor. Some less-polished sakes are easier to sip when warm.
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Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure, and more.
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