How To Enjoy Sake, According to Experts

Rule number one: go for the good stuff first.

These days, it seems like everyone and their mother is traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun, and here in Manila, ramen, katsu, and sushi restaurants are popping up left and right. Since it’s clear we Pinoys love Japanese food, it’s time we learned to appreciate Japanese liquor as well—particularly sake.

Why sake? The drink’s smooth and subtle flavors are the perfect match for Japanese cuisine, especially with lighter dishes like sushi and sashimi. Its aromas are just as complex as wine’s, and while most sake is stronger than vino, it won’t burn your throat unlike other clear spirits. And if you’re adventurous enough, you can pair sake with pretty much any type of cuisine.

Of course, entering the world of sake can be pretty daunting, especially with all those Japanese labels. That’s why we’ve consulted Nobuhide Andoh—resident sake expert at Chotto Matte and Izakaya Sensu, restaurant producer, and CEO of Piglet Tokyo—to come up with this nifty guide to choosing and enjoying sake.

Know your basic sake classifications.

To choose good sake, you need to have some understanding of how it’s made. Sake is classified in two ways: how much the grains were polished before fermentation, and whether or not pure, distilled alcohol has been added to the mix.

This is because sake is produced using rice that was especially grown for the purpose, with all the starch (a.k.a. the good stuff) concentrated in the center. Polishing the rice removes outer layers containing proteins and minerals that can mess with the taste of the sake. The more the rice is polished, the more fragrant, pure, smooth, and complex the final result will be.


Ginjo is sake made from rice that has been polished so that 60% of the grain remains.

Daiginjo is made from rice that has been milled so that 50 to 35% of the grain is left.

Junmai is “pure” sake, meaning that no alcohol has been added to it, and 70% of the grain is left intact. But if you see the term Junmai Ginjo on the label, that means it’s pure sake made from rice that’s been milled so that 60% is left. Likewise, Junmai Daiginjo is brewed using rice that has been polished so that 50-35% remains, with no added alcohol.

Without the term Junmai attached, you can assume that your Ginjo and Daiginjo have been mixed with a bit of alcohol. But according to John Gauntner, the world’s most renowned non-Japanese sake expert and author of The Sake Handbook, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since adding alcohol can enhance the sake’s flavor and aroma.

Honjozo is sake with added alcohol, made from grains that have been ground down to 70%.

Futsu-shu literally means “ordinary sake,” or table sake. There’s no requirement for how much the rice must be polished, and brewers add distilled alcohol to it to increase yield and lower costs.

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Based on information from Hakkaisan.com

Start with the good stuff.

When you’re trying sake for the first time, Andoh recommends starting with premium sake and working your way down. For example, if you’re interested in pure rice wine, you can start with Junmai Daiginjo, then Junmai Ginjo, then Junmai. Or you can go from Daiginjyo to Ginjyo, then Honjozo, and end with Futsu-shu.

Another tip is to skip the sake from large breweries and go for small sake makers instead. “Gekkeikan, Hakutsuru, and Takara are major sake makers, but their sake quality is average. They’re popular in Japan, especially amongst older generations like 60 to 70 year-old men, but not necessarily 30 to 40-year-old men and women,” Andoh explains.

High quality, small-batch sake can be rather hard to find outside of Japan, but in Manila, Chotto Matte is a good place to start, since Andoh comes back every one to two months with premium artisanal sake from different parts of Japan.

High quality, small-batch sake can be rather hard to find outside of Japan, but in Manila, Chotto Matte is a good place to start, since Andoh comes back every one to two months with premium artisanal sake from different parts of Japan.

We particularly love the Touyou Bijin Junmai Daiginjo, which is dry with fruity accents. It was custom-made for Andoh himself at Sumikawa brewery, which is known for producing award-winning sake. It’s called Touyou Bijin or “Asian Beauty” as a tribute to Andoh’s grandmother, who owned a traditional Japanese restaurant that has been in the family for six generations. “She taught me not only how to live in society, but also how to appreciate fine cuisine and drink sake. So I put her image on the label of my bottles,” he says.


Toyo Bijin's label

If you do find yourself in Japan, here are some of Andoh’s favorite breweries. Make sure to ask for nihonshu, which is the proper name for sake in Japan—sake literally means “alcohol” in Japanese, so your bartender might wind up serving you anything from beer to vodka.

1| Aramasa Brewery

Main Sake: Aramasa No.6 

2| Takagi Brewery

Main Sake: Juyondai 

3| Matsuse Brewery

Main Sake: Matsunotsukasa

4| Kanzawagawa Brewery

Main Sake: Shosetsu 

5| Kokuryu Brewery

Main sake brand: Kokuryu, Kuzuryu

6| Miyaizumi Meijo Brewery

Main Sake: Syaraku

Taste sake the same way you would wine.

Give it a sniff and see what aromas you can identify. When tasting, see if the flavors are consisted with the aromas you noticed earlier, and after swallowing, observe the finish or aftertaste. Is the sake sweet or dry? Light, or full-bodied?

“Generally there are two types of flavors, and they depend on which yeast the chief brewer chose,” Andoh says. If the brewer used ethyl caproate, you might get notes of green apple or pear. On the other hand, isoamyl acetate gives sake a hint of banana.


Of course, just like with wine, different people can pick up all kinds of different aromas, from the fruity to the outlandish. And if at first you can’t seem to identify any specific flavors, don’t sweat it. Sake is a much more subtle drink than wine, and the most important thing is that you like the drink you’re holding.

Pair heavier, stronger sake with heavy food, and drink lighter, more fragrant sake as an aperitif.

“Lower-grade sake like Junmai, Honjozo, and Futsu-shu taste stronger and richer, and are less fragrant, so they go well with strong-tasting dishes like tuna, yakitori, and grilled pork and beef,” Andoh explains.

On the other hand, the rich aromas of high-end sake (such as Junmai Daiginjo) make them difficult to pair with food, so he recommends enjoying them before meals instead.

As for sashimi made from white fish like blowfish, lapu-lapu, flounder, and red snapper, Andoh recommends going with Junmai Ginjo.


Rich meats would work better with lower-grade sake.

If you’re buying sake to serve at home, avoid Namasake at all costs.

Unpasteurized sake is called Namasake, and as Andoh says, “It’s very hard to maintain its quality because the yeast is alive in the bottle, and it requires appropriate temperature control.” Since our local climate is much hotter than that of Japan, Namasake tends to spoil much more easily here than it does there.

Again, Andoh highly encourages going for sake from small breweries. “Even a super expensive sake from a big maker is not worth tasting,” he says. “Sorry, this is my very personal opinion. Though not all small breweries are good, so you should also do some online research on the Japanese sake market.”

If you don’t have traditional sake cups, wine glasses will do just as well. John Gauntner says you can heat lower-grade sake like honjozo and futsushu, but heating high-end sake can destroy its delicate flavors, so ginjo and daiginjo are better off chilled.

Now that you know all the basics of drinking sake, go forth and drink!

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Angelica Gutierrez
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