Sake Starter Guide

You open the doors of Nobu Honolulu, on the ground floor of Ward Village’s Waiea, and follow the undulating, light wood slat ceiling to the outdoor bar. You take a seat and put aside the dinner menu. First things first – the drinks. While the specialty cocktails look tempting, it only seems right to start out the night with a glass of sake.

But how much do you know about sake? While you may have friends who are wine connoisseurs, most don’t know the finer details about sake, even with Hawai‘i’s strong ties to Japan. Here’s a starter guide on the basics of sake. On your next night out, impress your friends and put your newfound knowledge to a sake taste test.

What is sake?

Sake is the traditional alcoholic beverage of Japan made from fermented rice. It’s recorded roots trace back to the 8th century Nara period. In Japan, the word “sake” actually refers to all alcoholic drinks in general. So, when you’re in Japan, and you want to order a “sake,” ask for “nihonshu,” the proper Japanese term.


The first word to remember when choosing a sake is “junmai,” which means “pure rice.” This label means the sake is made only from rice, with no additives or additional distilled alcohol. Having some distilled alcohol (called “honjozo) isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can be done well in the right hands. But if you’re looking for a pure rice sake, look for “junmai” on the bottle.


The key to sake making is how much a grain of rice is “polished” or “milled.” This is the process of removing the outer layer of each grain to reach its starchy core. Typically, the more the rice is polished, the better the sake. For the best sake, 30% to 50% of the grain is ground away during the brewing process. Junmai sake is typically polished to 70% (30% of the grain has been milled off).


This is sake made of highly milled rice, meaning at least 40% of the grain has been ground away – you’ll see 60% on the bottle. Ginjo has a light, fragrant, complex flavor. “Junmai ginjo” is pure rice ginjo sake with no additive alcohol.


Daiginjo is even more highly milled, with at least 50% of the rice being polished down. This is a super-premium sake – often at super-premium prices. But you’ll be able to taste how much lighter, fragrant and more complex the flavors are. Both ginjo and daiginjo are considered premium sakes, but you can get quality sakes at all levels of polishing, depending on the brewer.

Warm or cold?

While ginjo and daiginjo are typically served cold to bring out their flavors, heating sake can bring out the warm alcohol notes. Warm sake is more common with non-ginjo and daiginjo sakes but heating sake isn’t only practiced for the cheaper, table sake. When in doubt, ask your server or experiment on your own to find what you like best.

Now raise a glass. Here’s to a better understanding of sake. Kanpai!

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