5 Best Sake Picks, According to a Spirits Expert
We rounded up the best yuzu and nigori sake as well as the best for cocktails!
My first memory of drinking sake was in a Japanese restaurant on Mercer Street in Manhattan in the late 90s when I was still in high school. I snuck a few sips from my older friend, who had received their serving in the traditional wooden box. I’d been obsessed with Japanese culture for years at this point, and being able to experience a new aspect was exciting to me, to say the least. The mellow, grainy flavor with a slight alcoholic kick hitting my lips for the first time is a sensation I still remember to this day.
Over a decade passed before I began to engage with sake in a professional way. One of the first cocktails I learned how to make as a bartender at Please Don't Tell was the Koyo, a complex concoction of sake, Cynar, elderflower and fortified wine. And then when I went on to work at the Momofuku restaurant group, each restaurant’s beverage program featured at least a handful of well-selected sakes. This is all to say: I’m not an expert, but I do know my way around a sake bottle and get great pleasure from sharing what I do know about this fascinating category.
First, some basics. Sake refers to the category of drinks made from the fermentation of rice using koji, which is a cluster of mold spores. The koji mold breaks down the starches in the rice into fermentable sugars, which are converted into alcohol and other compounds. The producer can control a number of factors that impact the resulting liquid, from the amount of protein that’s polished off the rice before brewing, how finely it’s filtered, or if additional elements are added such as flavorings.
Sake is generally served cold, although hot sake is common (and wonderful), and is usually enjoyed as an accompaniment to food. Obviously Japanese cuisine is a great fit for sake, but I’ve found that sake goes well with a number of culinary styles and is actually quite versatile in its applications.
If you’re looking to break into the world of sake, I’ve put together a few picks to get you on your way.
The Dewazakura brewery has been operational since the late 1800s. The classification, daiginjo refers to how much of the rice is polished away before brewing, which in this case, more than 50% of the outer layer is removed. This sake has a gentle malty aroma and is super clean on the palate — great with lighter dishes or even as an aperitif.
Takara Sake has been brewing sake in Berkeley California for more than 30 years. Their Extra Dry Junmai sake is a standout for me for use in cocktails where you want something with a bit more oomph and subtlety is not a priority. It has a slight briny note to it, which helps it work as a replacement for vermouth in a traditional gin martini. A sake gimlet is also a refreshing, low-ABV cocktail.
Vending machine culture is huge in Japan. In addition to a huge array of soft drinks, you can also buy beer and sake in certain places. Most of the sake comes out in single-serving cans, perfect for the train ride home after a long day at the office. We don’t have quite the same experience in the US, but fortunately we can find single serving sake fairly easily. One of my favorites comes in a glass jar emblazoned with cartoon deer. I love drinking this super cold with salty snacks and a movie, but it’s also great warmed up.
Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that has a melon-ey, meyer lemon flavor. It grows everywhere in Japan, but it much harder to find fresh in the United States. This sake is blended with all-natural yuzu juice for a super fun, slightly sweet and very tart tipple. I like to think of this as a pre-bottled cocktail in its own right, but is great with a splash of soda or sparkling wine.
The word nigori translates approximately to “cloudy” and is used to refer to sake that is not filtered before bottling. In this regard, nigori sake is somewhat similar to Korean makgeolli. The cloudy bits do settle, meaning that you need to shake your bottle before serving. The overall profile of nigori is richer and sweeter than regular sake, with a slight chalky texture. I find this particular nigori to be a bit more elegant and delicate than others on the market, making it a good entry point for the uninitiated.
John deBary is the author of Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails; CEO and Founder of Proteau, a zero-proof drinks company; and is also the Co-Founder and Board President of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.