Sake is a wonderful drink. Versatile, sessionable, complex and simple, all of these words sum up what sake is, even when it might sound contradictory. That’s the beauty of an industry that produces a range of styles suited to different palates.
Falling down the nihonshu rabbit hole can be a rewarding experience, as it provides a window into centuries of Japanese craftmanship. But before setting off on that journey, it’s natural to ask ‘where the hell am I meant to start?’ Good question.
If you’re thinking of trying sake for the first time, here’s a list that’s been put together from experts across the industry. With detailed tasting notes and a background of different breweries, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of Japan’s national drink.
Sake Matters’ Will Jarvis recommends Shusen junmai daiginjo:
Saijo is Hiroshima Prefecture’s “Sake Town”, consisting of eight breweries, all within staggering distance of each other, making for a very intense but enjoyable afternoon of tasting the area’s soft water sake.
Best of the lot is the famed Kamoizumi Brewery, founded in 1912, and its celebrated Shusen Junmai Ginjo. Made from local Hiroshima Hattan rice, milled to 58%.
First time drinkers expecting the characteristic delicate ginjo aromas and flavours of exotic fruits and banana will be taken aback a little by this more rustic and savoury experience but that’s the whole point of this sake, it’s a link to sakes past, an expression of how traditional sakes were made and enjoyed for hundreds of years.
Shusen is well structured with good body, creamy and buttery with a hint of raw pastry and apple pie. Best of all, experiment with temperature and enjoy this delicious sake warm or chilled. Great with grilled meats, game and hearty stews, will even stand up to a Sunday roast.
As the poem by a mid-Edo period Zen priest, Oshō Ryōkan, on the label says: “I was drunk because the sake you recommended was irresistible.”
Co-Founder of the UK’s first sake brewery Kanpai, Lucy Wilson, recommends SUMI:
Of our Kanpai sake, we’d recommend starting with SUMI. It’s the most traditional and ‘classic’ of our nihonshu. SUMI is a smooth, full-bodied tokubetstu junmai that is both fruity and savoury. Can be enjoyed with seafood, steak or smoky BBQ.
It’s very versatile so can be enjoyed chilled, warmed or in a cocktail.
Sommelier, podcast host and founder of Sugidama Blog, Alex Kirillov has two delicious nihonshu to recommend:
1. Dassai 45 Junmai Daiginjo
Dassai is one of the best-known sake brands outside Japan and a popular brand in the country itself. The brewery, which is actually called Asahi Shuzo (not to be confused with Asahi Shuzo, a producer of excellent Kubota sake and Asahi beer), makes only junmai daiginjo sake.
Dassai 45 is a successor of the popular Dassai 50. Dassai 45 is an all-rounder with a classic fruity junmai daiginjo aroma where you will notice banana, pear melon and other fruit notes. It has a balanced acidity and well measured sweetness.
It’s great on its own or with a wide variety of food: fish, chicken, vegetables or light meat dishes. I recommend Dassai 45 because it’s a classic junmai daiginjo sake at an affordable price.
2. Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai
Nanbu Bijin brewery is well known among sake aficionados, thanks to its charismatic president, Kosuke Kuji, who tirelessly promotes sake around the world and who was featured in a great documentary, Kampai!
Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai is a rather refined junmai sake due to a higher polishing ratio. The sake is more aromatic than your usual junmai with strawberries, banana and pears flavours.
It’s medium dry sake with a clean finish and complex taste. It’s great at room temperature but you can drink it slightly chilled if you prefer.
This ginjo sake from the Dewazakura brewery is extremely popular among consumers new to the delicious world of sake and it’s easy to understand why.
First, its price. Good quality Japanese sake comes at a premium outside of Japan and especially in the U.K. This is due to the low production volume from artisanal breweries and high cost of refrigerated transportation and storage. However, this bottle is of extremely high value. It was the very first affordable ginjo sake ever made in Japan. The Dewazakura brewery became popular in the 1980s for the release of the “Oka”, the first ginjo sake made available to the general public and reserved for tasting competition.
Secondly, it’s gorgeous aromas. On the nose, this sake offers a charming and inviting flowery bouquet. With a dry start, it is accompanied by a creamy mouthfeel that will let you enjoy its richly textured rice quality. The sake then finishes on a light and refreshing notes of pear and melon, exceptional characteristics of ginjo. It’s an easy drinking sake that is approachable and will ideally suit wine-drinkers.
Thirdly, its makers. The Dewazakura brewery was founded in 1892 by Seijiro Nakano in the city of Tendo in Yamagata prefecture. It’s now run by the 4th generation of the Nakano family, Mr Masumi Nakano.
The brewery is famous for democratising ginjo sakes in Japan with the release in 1980 of its “Oka” ginjo. It was the first affordable and readily available ginjo in the market. Since then, the people of Dewazakura have continued innovating. They perfected the cold storage technique, to best retain the aromas and flavours of sake until bottling in 1991. They also introduced the use of local Dewasansan rice in 1996, developing further the concept of terroir in the world of sake.
Finally, its birthplace. Yamagata prefecture is located in Japan’s northern Tohoku region. Its spirit can be felt in its hundreds of natural hot springs, grand temples, shrines and charming towns that have risen up around them.
With attractions in each season, Yamagata is an attractive destination throughout the year. In fall, its many mountains reflect the soft yet stunning colours of autumn. In winter, one can ski or snowboard among the unique “Snow Monster” formations in the Zao area. A truly unique experience.
If you’re interested in Japan’s traditional religions, Yamagata is the ideal destination, with its unique local culture of “yamabushi”, Japan’s ancient tradition of mountain aesthetics. Climbing up to one of its magnificent mountain temples is a spiritual trial all its own, and serious pilgrims can challenge all of the Dewa Sanzan or the Three Holy Peaks.
Yamagata is also the only prefecture in Japan to have received its very own Geographical Indication for nihonshu. Attestation for the incredible quality, flavour and uniqueness of the region’s sake.
Erika Haigh, the owner of Moto, the UK’s first independent sake bar and shop, said:
An entry-level sake I would love to recommend is one called Kujira Junmai Ginjo made by Chiyo Brewery in the historic Nara prefecture. It almost feels as if this sake was made especially for the European market considering how similar it is to the experience of drinking white wine – it has the crisp yet fruity nature of a Sauvignon Blanc as well as the minerality of an Albarino (which makes it perfect for summer. It’s a great match with seafood, especially oysters!
Given how people here in the U.K. are more accustomed to drinking white wines, this sake will not seem so foreign to them and that is probably why it has been going down so well, and why it is the ideal entry-level sake. The brewery’s CEO, Mr. Tetsuya Sakai, comes from a winemaking background, which explains this sake’s wine-like nature!
Justin Potts of the Sake on Air podcast recommends the Mukyu Tenon junmai ginjo kimoto:
Tenon sake tends to strike with the most aggressive subtlety you can imagine. The Mukyu Tenon label, even more so. While pleasant on first contact, it’s after a glass (or tokkuri) or two that you realise you’ve been the unknowing recipient of a gentle massage on your soul. Once that registers with the receptors, you arrive at a place you (thankfully) can’t return from.
Don’t let the ginjo deceive you. Sure, there’s some subtle fruit tucked away in there, but make no mistake, this sake is a kimoto at heart. Think shiitake and a hint of cream and you’ll be getting close. At about 13% ABV, this sake goes down easy lightly chilled, straight off the counter at ambient temperature, or hovering a bit over body temperature. You can play the entire field without fear of failure, and what’s more, this sake will only further develop complexity and nuance over time; either sealed, or after opening.
Not only is this sake a gentle way to ease into the category with, it’s also one you’ll likely be happy to come home to in the years to come.