5 Things to Know About Sake

Plus: Where to find it in Washington.

By: Jessica Voelker

1. It’s not rice wine

Sake often gets misidentified as rice wine because it has a lot in common with wine—they share a similar alcohol content (15.5 to 16.5 percent for sake) and “mouth feel,” and both have a range of aromas. Actually, sake is a brewed beverage, kind of like beer. But where beer fermentation involves malting—a process that converts starchy grains into sugar so yeast can then turn the sugar into alcohol—sake brewers sprinkle a mold spore onto rice before introducing yeast. The spores are an essential ingredient in all sake—along with rice, water, and yeast.

2. The cloudy stuff is just the start

Americans are most familiar with nigori—the cloudy, roughly filtered sake commonly found at sushi buffets. But most sake is clear.

3. It’s not always drunk hot

You can drink it that way if you want to, but many sakes taste best chilled or slightly warmed. At good sake shops, you’ll see bottles stored in the refrigerator as well as—or instead of—on shelves. For safety, unpasteurized sakes—labeled nama—should be kept cold.

4. Even if you think you don’t like sake, there might be one for you

Japan has about 1,200 sake breweries spread out over every prefecture. Flavors range from earthy and musty to elegant and floral. And sake doesn’t go just with Asian foods—fans in the United States love pairing it with barbecue, among other dishes.

5. It’s a great Champagne alternative

Just like effervescent wines, sparkling sakes undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. They’ve only recently become widely available in the US but are quickly gaining popularity. Case in point: When we asked local beverage experts to name their favorite sakes, three out of four chose sparklers.


Where to Find It

The new restaurant Izakaya Seki (1117 V St., NW; 202-588-5841) boasts a well-curated sake list, Kaz Sushi Bistro (1915 I St., NW; 202-530-5500) offers flights alongside a nice selection of bottles. When shopping, visit an Asian market such as H Mart (multiple locations; hmart.com) or a wine store that offers chilled options—the best way to store and drink it—such as Woodley Park’s Sherry’s Wine & Spirits (2627 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-234-9200). In Baltimore, Soto suggests the Wine Source (3601 Elm Avenue; 410-467-7777). TrueSake.com is a good online resource.