9 Best Sakes to Drink and Cook with, According to an Expert
In the sake world, production methods play as much of a role in determining the character of a brew as the raw materials and environment (you can learn about sake basics here). When shopping for sake, a good place to start is with price point. Broadly speaking, highly polished ginjo and daiginjo sake tends to be more expensive. These super-premium products are usually aromatic with prominent fruity and floral flavors. More gently milled rice yields earthier, fuller-bodied sake.
Next, think about how you want to serve the sake. Frangrant daiginjo or ginjo works well on its own as an aperitif, but you might want a savory junmai to drink with a meal. Craving warm sake? Pick a hefty junmai with higher levels of acidity and umami. Honjozo, which often veers toward the lighter and drier end of the flavor spectrum, is another good choice for heating. Feeling festive? Pop open a bottle of sparkling sake. Most sake producers release seasonal brews, so keep your eyes peeled for limited-edition bottles, especially around spring and autumn. Here are our picks for the best sake brands to drink and cook with.
Best Sake for Beginners
Full-flavored and zippy, Kamoshibito Kuheiji Daiginjo is an all-around crowd pleaser. High-impact fruity aromas of strawberry and banana are backed up by a mouthful of ripe melon and berries, with slightly savory hints of yeast. Made with Yamada Nishiki rice—the most popular variety for highly polished brews—this sake achieves a wonderful balance of sweetness, umami, acidity, astringency and bitterness.
Banjo Jozo has been brewing in Nagoya Prefecture since 1647, but company president Kuheiji Kono decided to take the sake in a bold new direction more than 20 years ago. An art lover and former model, Kono wanted to create brews that could pair with French and other non-Japanese cuisines. These days, Kamoshibito Kuheiji sake can be found on menus at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world.
Best Sake for Seasoned Sake Drinkers
This poised and finely balanced brew hails from Kochi Prefecture, a region known for its fondness for tippling. The combination of a restrained nose, firm acidity and a bone-dry finish gives this junmai sake great range. Subtle flavors of fruit and rice unfold across the palate, with herbal hints of anise in the center. While lively and juicy, the sake is clean and dry, fantastic both chilled and slightly warmed. The name translates as "drunken whale"—an apt moniker, given the sake's easy-drinking character.
Best Hot Sake
Though lovely at room temperature or slightly below, Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri Junmai shines when heated up to 122°F. Flavors of toasted rice and marshmallow rise to the fore, with hints of fruity nuance on the nose. Smooth-textured and soothingly weighty, this sake is perfect for chilly nights, served alongside comforting dishes such as nabe hotpot or beef stew.
Founded in 1662, Miyasaka Shuzo has been producing sake in the mountainous region of Nagano Prefecture since Edo times. The venerable brewery's claim to fame is the discovery in 1946 of Brewing Association Yeast Number Seven, a reliable and sturdy variety that remains one of the most widely used sake yeast strains today.
Best Cold Sake
A collaboration with the Grammy Award-winning French rock band Phoenix, this junmai-daiginjo from Yamagata-based sake brewery Tatenokawa is pure fun in a bottle. It's lush and vibrant, with flavors of apple, melon and a hint of juicy berry. The sake's balance of umami and bright acidity makes it a flexible pairing partner, able to sit alongside vegetable dishes like grilled asparagus and soft cheeses, as well as shrimp and vegetable kakiage tempura. The sparkling sake in the same series is equally delightful. A portion of the proceeds from the sake is donated to the Japanese Red Cross.
Best Sake for White Wine Lovers
White wine lovers will appreciate the crisp minerality of this sake from Yamaguchi Prefecture. Master brewer Takahiro Nagayama spent years making wine in France before returning to Japan to run the family business, where he takes a terroir-driven approach to sake making.
The water used for brewing is rich in limestone, which gives the sake a mineral edge and firm structure. Herbal and fruity aromas give way to flavors of melon and citrus, followed by a touch of astringency and gentle bitterness in the finish. The sake is at its best served chilled, like a white wine, but serving it closer to room temperature brings out its creamy texture.
Best Food-Friendly Sake
Elegant, soft and extremely versatile, this junmai ginjo works with a wide variety of dishes. The sake displays a quiet bouquet of subtle floral and apple aromas, with a slightly sweet attack followed by ricey flavors and a dry finish. It's light on the palate but has enough substance and complexity to stand up to hearty fare like chicken teriyaki skewers with shishito peppers. Made with Gohyakumangoku rice grown in Fukui Prefecture, Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo exemplifies the brewery's philosophy of creating clean but layered brews that complement food without overpowering it.
Best Value Sake
This wallet-friendly sake from Nagano Prefecture is delicious both chilled and warmed. Dry and rich, the brew exhibits nutty flavors, with notes of chocolate and toasted sesame. The yeast starter is made with the traditional kimoto method, a time-consuming and laborious technique. In modern sake making, lactic acid is first added to the yeast starter to create a sterile environment that allows yeast to grow. But with kimoto, lactic acid is produced naturally by mashing the starter with wooden poles into a creamy puree. The process results in greater depth and complexity, along with higher acidity.
Best Conversation-Starter Sake
Made by one of Japan's pioneering female sake brewers, this distinctive sake is brewed with an heirloom strain of red rice from Kyoto Prefecture. Sake maker Kuniko Mukai began experimenting with the rice variety while studying at Tokyo Agricultural University, and her rosy-hued Ine Mankai Junmai has become brewery Mukai Shuzo's flagship brand.
With its delicate sweetness and earthy umami complexity, the sake has made it onto menus at top restaurants such as three-Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen. There's strawberry, vanilla and a hint of rose on the nose. Balanced acidity and pleasing heft give the sake layered depth, with flavors of cherry, cacao and mushroom on the palate.
Best Sake for Cooking
As the adage goes, you should never cook with sake you wouldn't drink. But you also don't want to cook with a wildly expensive or overly characterful brew. Ozeki Yamadanishiki Tokubetsu Junmai hits the mark on all counts. It's smooth and enjoyable on its own, especially when slightly warmed, and it can also add a touch of sweetness and umami depth to dishes. The sake's subdued aromas and mellow rice flavors blend with any style of cuisine (try swapping cooking wine for sake in dishes like steamed clams casino-syle). Produced by one of Japan's largest sake companies, the brew is widely available and budget-friendly.
How to Enjoy Sake
The same general rules for pairing wine with food apply to sake pairing, but sake's ability to be enjoyed both hot and cold adds an extra dimension. Try matching the temperature of the sake to the dish. For example, a chilled glass of juicy junmai ginjo works with shrimp ceviche or tuna poke, while a gently warmed sake makes a soothing accompaniment to French onion soup.
Texture is another key consideration. Sake's high levels of amino acids—up to 250 milligrams of glutamic acid per 100 grams—lend the drink an umami punch and incredible textural range. Leaner brews with taut umami and a mineral edge, like Taka "Noble Arrow" Junmai, are a match for white fish dishes like lemony panko-crusted sole. For a luxurious combination, pair fatty fish like yellowtail with an umami-rich and velvety-smooth sake. An off-dry daiginjo offsets the briny flavor of caviar while highlighting the exquisite texture of the roe. The same goes for cheese: Try a grassy, bright nama-zake with chèvre, a ricey honjozo with Comté or smoked Gouda, and an earthy junmai like Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto with Mimolette or Parmesan.
Most sake is meant to be drunk young, within about a year of its release. It should be stored in a cool place away from direct light. Once opened, keep bottles in the fridge for up to a week for nama-zake or lighter styles, and up to three weeks for heavier brews. If you ever find yourself with leftover sake (an unlikely scenario), put it to good use by cooking with it.
Melinda Joe is a food, sake and wine writer based in Tokyo, Japan. She is a columnist with The Japan Times where she writes about drinks. She is a sake panel chair for the International Wine Challenge.