News & Politics

5 Things to Know About Sake

Plus: Where to find it in Washington.

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

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

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

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

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
(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; 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). is a good online resource.