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“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 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. Though aged sake is an emerging trend, most sakes should be consumed young, says Samuels.
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 Samurai 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 “cleaner, 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. The following is a list of the best sake to drink right now, according to these experts.
Best Overall: Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai
Japan’s Niigata Prefecture is a snowy, mountainous place where, in general, the sake produced is quite 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 tremendously 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.
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Best Junmai: Shichida Junmai
“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. “It rises to the occasion.”
Best Ginjo: Dewazakura Cherry Bouquet Oka Ginjo
Made with rice polished to at least 60% 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, with a flavor redolent of cherry blossoms, apricot, and, surprisingly, spicy radish.
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Best Daiginjo: Dassai 39 Junmai Daiginjo
“‘Dai’ means ‘big’ or ‘more,’ so daiginjo is light-bodied but more aromatic,” notes Niikawa. It is considered the most premium style of sake. Dassai brews only junmai daiginjo, and it does so at a reasonable price. The number on the label reveals how much of the rice is left after polishing, with just 39 percent remaining. This favorite of Niikawa’s offers floral and green apple notes, a light body and a graceful finish. Dry and well-balanced, it pairs best with appetizers, where its fragrance doesn’t clash with the smoky, buttery or pungent flavors that go well with a simple junmai.
Best Kimoto: Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto
“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. It’s perfect as an aperitif to pair with mixed nuts, cured meats, hard cheeses and olives.
Best Nigori: Kikusui Perfect Snow
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.
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Best Fruity: Yuki no Bosha “Cabin in the Snow”
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 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.”
Best Hot: Ama No To Tokubetsu Junmai "Heaven's Door"
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° Fahrenheit.
Best Cold: Masumi Yumedono Daiginjo "Mansion of Dreams"
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 has garnered it gold medals in national competitions. Pair this ethereal sake with light sashimi and other delicate seafood dishes.
Best Value: Sho Chiku Bai Junmai
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.
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Best Organic: Kikusui Junmai Ginjo
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 and pure 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.
Best Domestic: Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo
Nowadays, plenty of sake—and even some sake rice—is produced within the United States, but back in 1997, the pioneer was SakéOne. Brewed in Oregon’s Williamette Valley by the Stateside branch of a 130-year-old Japanese brewery, SakéOne’s USDA-certified Momokawa junmai ginjo has a distinctly American panache. “They’re trying to create an identity for Oregon craft sake,” says Samuels, “with aromas of coconut that you would never get in a truly Japanese sake.” Augmented by notes of green apple and creamy yogurt, this tropical bottle is made with organic California-grown Calrose rice and water from a Pacific Northwest rainforest aquifer.
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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.