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Want to know how to enjoy sake? We’ll equip you with the necessary knowledge to elevate your sake drinking experience, whether at home or in restaurants.

sake being served from a black vessel into a cup on a wooden tray

Let’s get started on how to drink sake!

There are a lot of factors when it comes to drinking sake, but just remember to keep it simple and fuss-free. Feel free to experiment and go wild, despite what experts and even this post will advise. After all, the ultimate goal is to drink and savor the experience! Regardless of whether you’re drinking at home or restaurants, with friends, or by yourself, here’s a guide on how to enjoy sake.

A ceramic plate containing Mirin Salmon along with steamed rice, roasted cauliflower, and sauteed greens.

This is the second of a four-part series delving into the world of sake.

  1. What is sake, how is it made, who are the people involved
  2. How to enjoy sake, such as the different temperatures, drinking vessels, and how to store the bottles
  3. The rich history of sake throughout Japanese civilization
  4. How sake is intertwined with Japanese culture and seasonal events

Enjoy Sake at Different Temperatures

What’s unique about sake compared to other alcoholic beverages is its wide range of drinking temperatures, which can dramatically change the aroma and taste of sake. You can warm or chill sake or serve at room temperature depending on the paired foods, the season, and your mood! Although there are some guidelines, there are no complex rules for sake temperature, so explore and taste how the same sake transforms.

A black bowl containing Okara (Unohana) mixed with assorted vegetables, shiitake mushroom, seaweed, and konnyaku.

Warmed sake is the traditional way of drinking sake, as chilled sake was possible thanks to refrigeration technology within the last 50 years. However, it has a bad rap, and some experts may deter you from heating sake. One of the reasons is that heating can make cheap sake palatable, which mellows out the harshness. You may be surprised to taste how the sake opens up if you buy quality sake and do it yourself or order from a trustworthy restaurant!

Sake temperatures are categorized into three groups.

  • Reishu (冷酒) “cold sake”
    • Chilled sake. The flavor, aroma, and sweetness are subtle and the alcohol is sharp and strong
  • Hiyazake (冷や酒) “room temperature sake”
    • Sake around 20-25C/68-77F. You can taste the flavor and aroma as is
  • Kanzake (燗酒) “warm sake”
    • Warm sake, which smooths out and mellows the alcoholic flavors and acidity and brings out the sweetness and umami
How to Heat Sake at Home | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com

Japanese Expressions for Sake Temperatures

The Japanese have colorful expressions to describe the various degrees of sake temperatures to break this further down. Even a 5C difference can change its profile!

  • Yuki-bie (雪冷え) “snow chilled” = 5C/41F
  • Hana-bie (花冷え) “flower chilled” = 10C/50F
  • Suzu-bie (涼冷え) “cool chilled” = 15C/59F
  • Jou-on (常温) “room temperature” = 20C/68F
  • Hinata-kan (日向燗) “sunshine warm sake” = 30C/86F
  • Hitohada-kan (人肌燗) = “body temperature warm sake” = 35C/95F
  • Nuru-kan (温燗) “warm sake” = 40C/104F
  • Jo-kan (上燗) “superior warm sake” = 45C/113F
  • Atsu-kan (熱燗) “hot warm sake” = 50C/122F
  • Tobikiri-kan (飛び切り燗) = “extremely warm sake” = 55C/131F
  • Acchichi-kan (あちち燗) = “super warm sake” = 60C/140F

Sake Temperature Tips

Seafood salad with vinaigrette in the white baking dish.
  • When pairing foods with sake, try pairing the sake temperature with the food. Serve chilled sake with chilled food, room temperature sake with room temperature food, and so on
  • Drink warm sake in small cups so that it won’t cool down quickly
  • The general advice is to refrain from warming gingo, daiginjo, namazake, and carbonated sake. Heating sake loses some of its delicate flavor and aroma

How to Heat Sake

To heat sake, heat a small pot of water until boiling, turn it off and submerge a tokkuri with sake inside. The sake will warm up in one to three minutes. You could also use a chirori or tanpo.

You could also microwave the tokkuri. Be careful of the contents exploding in the microwave as this unevenly heats the sake. But microwaving is a convenient method, so if you do, make sure to check on it as it heats up and stir the contents to distribute the heat.

sake being served from a white vessel into a cup on a wooden tray

How to Count and Serve Sake

Ready to pop open a bottle and enjoy sake? Let’s get acquainted with the various sake units and terminologies.

Sake Units

  • Issho-bin (一升瓶) 1.8l/60.8oz
    • You’ll see these magnum bottles at restaurants and izakaya (Japanese gastropubs)
  • Yongou-bin (四合瓶) 720ml/24oz
    • Slightly smaller than a wine bottle, best for home drinkers. It fits in most home refrigerators
  • Ichigou (一合) 180ml/6oz
    • The standard size of a tokkuri or masu
  • Cup sake (カップ酒) 180-300ml/6-10oz
    • Individual servings for easy drinking come in glass cups with a lid. It has a reputation for being low quality, but there has been growing interest in these accessible single serving sizes
sake bottles, vessels, and cups on a marble table

Sake Vessels

Sake is usually transferred into a smaller vessel for easy pouring. These vessels hold around 180-360ml/6-12oz (1-2 gou). This makes it much easier to pour sake into cups than heavy bottles.

  • Tokkuri (徳利) come in various sizes, from tall and narrow to gourd shaped. It has better heat retention than katakuchi due to its small mouth. Use tokkuri for cold, room temperature, and warm sake
  • Katakuchi (片口) has a squat shape with a wider mouth. Not suitable for warm sake as the sake will cool due to the open mouth
  • Chirori (銚釐) is used to warm or chill sake and is made of metal such as bronze, tin, aluminum, or stainless steel. It has a flip lid and looks like an elongated teapot. It is half submerged into hot or ice water, which can be served at the table as is or transferred into a tokkuri
  • Tanpo (湯婆) is similar to a chirori, except it doesn’t have a lid and with a wider mouth. The term is generally used in the Kansai area (although nowadays chirori and tanpo are used interchangeably)
various sake vessel and cups on a marble table

Sake Cups

Like drinking wine from a Riedel glass versus a mason jar, the drinking cup can significantly affect and elevate your experience. It can alter the aroma, sweetness, and even the temperature of the sake. Unlike wine or beer, where the vessel is always glass, sake cups can range from earthenware, porcelain, lacquer, bamboo, and Japanese cedar, and the wall thickness can be thick or thin.

  • Ochoko (お猪口) are the smallest cups. Small and squat, it can hold 20-50ml/6.7-16.9oz of liquid
  • Sakazuki (盃) the oldest sake cup, it resembles shallow, almost flat plates. Initially, the nobility used sakazuki made of lacquer at banquets and ceremonies. Nowadays, they are used for special occasions such as wedding rites and the New Years celebration
  • Gui nomi (ぐい呑) are much bigger than ochoko and made for heavier drinking. They tend to be made of sturdy material and held with one hand
  • Masu (枡) are wooden boxes initially used by merchants as a measurement tool and as cups. Nowadays, you may see masu with a glass cup inside to catch the generous pour of sake. You can drink the sake directly from the masu or tip the contents into the glass
  • Kiriko (切子) is a traditional craft of cut glass with intricate patterns
  • Sake glasses are for cold sake. They can range from regular drinking glasses to wine glasses made explicitly for sake
glass sake vessel and a Kiriko cup on a marble table

Use the Correct Sake Cups to Enjoy Sake

Baffled by the choices? Here are a few tips to keep in mind when drinking sake:

  • For cold sake, choose ochoko made of porcelain, glass, earthenware, or metal ochoko
  • For warm sake, retaining heat is vital! Use cups with thick walls such as porcelain or earthenware and avoid glass, metal, and wood. Using small cups and warming the tokkuri in warm water will also help heat retention.

It ultimately comes to personal preference, so feel free to experiment and find the perfect drinking cups that fit your needs.

How to Read A Sake Bottle Label

You’ll find a lot of information printed on a sake label. The legally required information is the product name, the producer’s name and address, alcohol content, date of production, and more. Some have additional information such as the rice milling rate, acidity, the sake meter value, and a message from the brewery.

First, when browsing through sake bottles, check the sake category (honzojyo, junmai, ginjo, etc). That will give you a rough idea of what to expect.

Please read How to Read Sake Bottle Labels on the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association official website for additional reading.

sake bottles in a store

How to Store Sake

Like wine, properly storing open and unopened bottles of sake is key in preserving and extending its flavor.

Whether stored in the refrigerator or a cool place, avoid exposing the bottles to sunlight and fluorescent lighting. When buying sake at the store or online, check to ensure the bottles have been properly stored and managed through the shipping process. Direct sunlight, especially UV rays, will degrade the sake.

Always store sake bottles upright. Keeping it on its side will put the sake in contact with the metal cap, which may affect the flavor. Storing bottles upright reduces the amount of sake exposed to air, which will slow oxidation compared to bottles stored on its side.

Refrigerate Opened Sake

It’s best to store opened sake in the refrigerator to minimize oxidation, especially delicate sake such as ginjo, daiginjo, and namazake. Some experts recommend using a vacuum pump used for wine to prevent oxidation, although this may also lose the sake’s delicate aroma. You could also transfer the leftover sake into a smaller bottle to decrease air exposure. For the best quality and experience to enjoy sake, try to finish up the bottle as soon as possible.

Sake doesn’t have an expiration date as the high alcohol contents prevent rapid deterioration and keep the sake relatively stable. You could keep unopened and properly stored bottles for years.

sake bottles in a store

Etiquettes to Enjoy Sake

While drinking etiquette tends to be more casual when with friends or family than in a business environment, knowing some manners will undoubtedly impress your peers! To avoid offending your fellow dining companions, it is imperative to adhere to proper drinking etiquette at a business dinner.

Drink sake over multiple sips and don’t take shots or large gulps. Remember to be mindful of others when drinking, and don’t feel compelled to drink more than you can or pressure others to drink. Keep it fun!

Salmon Nanbanzuke (Marinated Fried Salmon)

When Receiving a Sake Pour

  • If someone offers you a drink, hold the cup from the side with your right hand and put the cup in your left hand. Don’t hold the cup with one hand
  • Always acknowledge and thank the person who poured you a drink, even if it’s just a nod or smile
  • Once you receive a drink, always take a sip before putting the cup down. Don’t finish the entire pour, even if the cup is small

When Pouring Sake

  • Before pouring a drink, ask the person if s/he would like a refill
  • To pour sake into a cup, use both hands. Hold the tokkuri from the top with your right hand so that the back of your hand is facing up, and put your left hand at the bottom near the opening (vice versa if left-handed)
  • When pouring sake into the cup, fill it 80% full unless s/he asked for less
  • If you see a cup that’s 1/3 empty, ask that person if s/he would like more
sake being served from a white vessel into a cup on a wooden tray

Helpful Tips When Drinking With Company

  • Make sure to drink water throughout the drinking session to stay hydrated
  • It’s courtesy to pour drinks for others but not for yourself, so if you see someone about to pour her/himself a glass, offer to pour one for that person (although some may decline these formalities)
  • If the tokkuri is empty, don’t lay it down, as it may roll off the table
  • Don’t shake the tokkuri or look inside to see if there’s any leftover. Just pour it out
  • If there’s sake still in the cup, don’t pour a different sake. If at a restaurant, the servers will bring new cups for each sake, so don’t reuse the same cup
  • Feel free to refuse if someone offers a refill politely. Do not flip the cup, as this is a sign of rejecting sake and can even signify breaking up relations with your drinking companions
Creamy macaroni gratin served in blue and red STAUB gratin dishes.

Food Pairings to Enjoy Sake

Ready to drink sake? While you can accompany your sake with bar snacks like roasted nuts, rice crackers, and the like, you could go fancy and serve with some yummy foods! Don’t limit yourself to Japanese food. Try pairing with different types of cheese, roast meats, pasta, and spicy dishes!

If drinking cold sake

If drinking room temperature sake

If drinking warm sake

Do you have memories of drinking sake with friends and family? Any tips on drinking sake at home? Please share in the comment box below!

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