Sake Demystified: Quick Trivia About the Japanese Beverage


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Sake tends to be an overlooked category in the United States. But according to restaurant and hospitality consultants AF & Co., that’s changing as more and more sake breweries and bars are emerging across the country. Consumers are interested to learn more about this perplexing beverage from Japan, so we sat down with Breakthru Beverage Director of Sake Eric Swanson to get the skinny.  

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You can enjoy sake at a variety of temperatures – hot, room temperature, cool, on the rocks. The richer and earthier the sake is, the better it is served warm. Cheaper sakes also taste better warm. You want to serve your sake cool if it is fruity, clean sake. And you’ll serve sake on the rocks if it’s for genshu, or full strength, which is usually 19-20% ABV.

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Sake is not just for sushi. The Japanese don’t eat sushi daily, but they do drink sake every day. The cuisine that has been enjoyed alongside sake has evolved over the last millennium, and it varies from season to season, and region to region. The variety of food is deep and wide, so experiment. Sake tastes even better with food, and almost all types of food taste better with sake.

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Sake has umami, or a savory taste. Umami is a combination of two Japanese words: “Umai,” which means delicious, and “Mi,” which means flavor.  As rice proteins break down into glutamines during the brewing process, those glutamines produce the effect of umami. This chemical effect emphasizes the other flavors and makes them taste better.

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Sake is gluten free, as there is no gluten in rice. Even sake that is blended at times with distilled spirits, is almost always made from rice or sugar.

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Sake trivia is useful knowledge, but decoding a sake label can still be an intimidating endeavor. Use this quick glossary to soak up the basic sake terms.

Polished: Sake is made from rice, which first must be milled – or polished down – to remove the grains’ outer layers. The percentage listed on a sake label will designate the percentage to which the rice has been polished down. For example, if a bottle reads 70%, that means 30% percent of the rice has been polished off. As a rule of thumb, the more the rice has been polished down, the higher the classification will be of the sake.  

Junmai: The Japanese word “junmai” means “pure rice.” If a bottle of sake has junmai listed on its label, it was brewed using only rice, water, yeast, and koji (fungi used to breakdown the rice). Junmai as a type of sake means that it is pure, but also that it’s been polished to at least 70%. Junmai sake tends to be richer and fuller-bodied with slight acidity.

Brewer’s Alcohol: Brewer’s alcohol is distilled alcohol that is added to some sakes to bring out flavors and aromas that may be lost during the fermentation processes.  

Honjozo: The rice in honjozo has been polished to at least 70%, but it also contains a small addition of brewer’s alcohol. Honjozo is light-bodied and high in acidity; therefore, it pairs well with food.

Ginjo and Junmai Gingo: Ginjo is a premium sake that contains rice that has been polished to at least 60%. Junmai ginjo is ginjo sake with no additives. Ginjo sake is typically light, fruity and fragrant with a smooth mouthfeel.  

Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo: Daiginjo is a super-premium sake containing rice that has been polished down to at least 50%. Daiginjo sakes adhere to very precise brewing methods and as a result have complex flavors and aromas. Junmai daiginjo is daiginjo sake without additives.

Futsushu: The rice in futsushu sake has been polished less than 70%. This sake is often referred to as “table sake.”

Shiboritate: Unlike most sakes, shiboritate skips the maturation process and goes straight from the presses into the bottle. The flavor is normally wild and fruity.

Namazake: Unlike most sakes which are pasteurized twice, namazake remains unpasteurized. This sake tends to be fresh and fruity with a vibrant aroma. Namazake must be refrigerated.

Nigori: Nigori is coarsely filtered and has small bits of rice left in it that give the sake a cloudy, white appearance. These sakes tends to be sweet and creamy.

Jizake: Jizake means “local sake,” and it will vary depending on the region in which it’s been brewed. Because these sakes are local to the region in which you find them, they’re normally fresh-tasting and moderately priced.

Genshu: Genshu is fresh, undiluted sake – meaning that is has not been pasteurized nor had any water added to it. Genshu sakes tend to have higher alcohol content and a stronger taste to them.

Tokubetsu – in Japanese means “special.” If it’s on the label, it designates that the sake has something special about it – whether that be an additive or a special brewing process.  


Make sure you’re well-educated and well-stocked on sake as the trend continues upwards. Contact your Breakthru Sales Consultant today about our sake portfolio.



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