For the uninitiated, sake is immensely complicated. Whereas wine can be defined by acidity or terroir, sake is an expression of each individual producer’s style and raw material. “There are a few regions where water plays an important role, but overall, you have to remove any sort of preconceived notion of what a sake from a particular region should taste like,” says Garrett Smith, certified sommelier and beverage director of New York’s Sushi Nakazawa. “[Sake] is meant to be enjoyed like a fine wine, but it plays with a similar palette, in terms of artistry, that you would see in beer.”
In much the same way that beer acquires flavor from a marriage of grains, yeast and hops, sake’s character comes from rice, yeast and koji (a mold spore). The rice strain and milling rate, or how much of a grain’s protein-laden hull has been removed, dictate flavor, while koji most directly relates to mouthfeel, or how sweet or dry a sake will be. “Sake is almost never compared to something like a really dry Sauvignon Blanc, or a dry Chardonnay,” Smith says. “It has a little more texture — a veneer, almost,” citing Marsanne or Viognier wines from France’s northern Rhône valley as comparable in structure.
“I’m here to help people translate what they’ve tasted before.”
To generalize, the flavor spectrum of sake spans fruity to savory (“earthy, spicy, mushroom tones”), with clean, mineral notes landing in the middle. While humans have a propensity to describe the new in terms of the known, comparison falls short in the realm of sake, where each bottle from each maker is singular in taste. “I’m here to help people translate what they’ve tasted before,” Smith explains.
Sampling sake in the context of food can be an effective means of developing an understanding of the spectrum on which sake falls. Much like a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with a hearty steak, different categories of sake can complement various styles of sushi. Think mild whitefish paired with something semi-sweet and floral, or assertive, aged yellowtail alongside a smoky, funky, umami-rich sake.
Sushi Nakazawa is one of the few omakase establishments to offer a sake pairing, which Smith guided us through, explaining what makes each bottle of sake unique and what it’s best paired with. Use it as a jumping-off point for sampling sakes and understanding flavors, rather than a hard-and-fast menu.
Sake Descriptors to Know
Futsushu: Lower-grade (though not necessarily bad) sake, comparable to a table wine.
Junmai: A traditional production method using water, koji, yeast and unmilled rice. Also used to designate a sake made without the addition of distilled alcohol.
Honjozo: Sake made with water, koji, yeast, 30% milled and 70% unmilled rice grains, plus distilled alcohol to help draw out nuanced flavors.
Ginjo: Sake made with water, koji, yeast, 40% milled and 60% unmilled rice grains, plus distilled alcohol to help draw out nuanced flavors.
Daiginjo: Sake made with water, koji, yeast, 50% milled and 50% unmilled rice grains, plus distilled alcohol to help draw out nuanced flavors.
Nigori: Unfiltered sake.
Nama: Unpasteurized sake.
Kimoto: A naturally fermented sake made without the addition of lactic acid (used to kill unwanted bacteria in the yeast starter), where steamed rice is pulverized to facilitate fermentation. Marked by a smoky, high-impact umami flavor.
Yamahai: Similar to Kimoto sake, but without the maceration of steamed rice. Shares a similarly umami-rich flavor.
Pair Salmon with Dewatsuru ‘Sakura Emaki’
“[It’s] made with two nearly extinct purple [rice] varieties. It’s incredibly light, soft and refreshing, borderline addicting. The red fruit elevates some of the sweeter character in the [salmon] flesh, and cools the smoky tones, making the sake a bit more savory.”
Style: Junmai Futsushu
Best With: salmon
Flavor: red fruit–dominated
Pair White Fish with Tedorigawa ‘Tsuyusanzen’
“With some of the white fish, I love to use a more floral style, akin to a dry Riesling. The ‘Tsuyusanzen‘ has bountiful white floral aromatics, coupled with a nice hint of green melon which elevates the floral nature of the scallop.”
Style: Nama Daiginjo
Best With: mellow white fish, like scallop, squid and golden eye snapper
Flavor: akin to dry Riesling; floral with hints of green melon
A Workhorse Sake
Yuho’s “Eternal Embers” Junmai is an easily quaffable sake that complements almost every type of fish, Smith says. “[Yuho’s] sakes are so soulful — a little bit deeper and a little more savory in style. “Eternal Embers” is so beautifully soft, with a little earth, a little hint of citrus. It has enough texture, enough body and acidity, to be a real fun, easy drinking sake.” Buy Now: $25
Pair Assertive Fish with Tensei ‘Thousand Waves’
“Yamahai styles are more traditional, made without adding yeast to the fermentation vessel. [‘Thousand Waves’ is made by surfers] who live their life to have fun, make sake, beer and pizza. I swear, sometimes I can smell the pizza-dough yeast in this sake, and in some cases it takes on a more intense, saltwater taffy aroma. It cuts through the oils of the mackerel, bringing out sweetness in the fish.”
Style: Junmai Yamahai
Best With: strong, oily fish like mackerel, aged yellowtail and botan ebi (large prawn)
Flavor: umami; saltwater taffy with notes of pizza dough yeast
Pair Tuna with Kokuryu ‘Hachijuhachigo’
“Kokuryu sakes always have a hint of a more savory finish. Eighty-Eight [or ‘Hachijuhachigo’] is all about the umami; it’s luxurious and massages lean, medium-fatty and fatty tuna pieces’ textures perfectly.”
Style: Junmai Daiginjo
Best With: tuna
Flavor: earthier umami
Pair Tamago with Kenbishi ‘Mizuho’
“They use a bit more koji [mold spores], which adds a layer of caramelized, nutty notes to the sake. Aging [for five years] helps to broaden and mellow the sake, while retaining a refreshing aspect to highlight the sweet umami of [sushi like uni and tamago].”
Style: Junmai Yamahai
Best With: uni and tamago
Flavor: sweeter umami, with a caramelized nuttiness