Guest Posts

Guest Post: 4 Sake Recommendations From Nihonshu Expert Justin Potts

Justin Potts.

I’m generally hesitant to recommend a sake based solely on the criteria of a drinker’s lack of experience with the category, and generally leery of any such recommendations, finding most “for first-timer” lists rather dubious at best. The reason is that, even if someone hasn’t had many previous opportunities to encounter sake, it doesn’t mean that they don’t bring a lot to the table. Everyone, whether they are conscious of it or not, comes packed with preferences based on all kinds of food and beverage experiences and influences. From my personal experience, there exists no single “starter sake” (or starter wine, beer, coffee, or any beverage, for that matter), but there does exist an entry point sake unique to each individual at any one point in time. The process of finding that is finding the joy, not just in sake, but across all kinds of food and beverage.

For this list, I’ve put together a few recommendations that I feel are not only reasonable starting points across the spectrum but are also sake that you’ll likely wind up continuing to come back to. Not just because they’re rather tasty, but because they have a lot of subtle character, as well; a lot of which will really become more apparent with time. You’ll get out of these sake as much as the time you’re willing to put into them, which is really true of any healthy relationship, no?

Brewery: Mitobe Sake Brewery

Region: Tendo, Yamagata Prefecture

Brand: Yamagata Masamune

Label: Omachi

Type: Junmai Ginjo 

Bias alert: I did a short stint brewing here, so feel free to assume that I’m far more personally invested in the brewery than the preferences of you, the reader.

That being said, the experience that put this brewery on the radar for me initially was entirely driven by flavour. When judging for an annual sake competition several years back, having tasted through roughly 1,000 different products, there was one that I kept returning to again and again, which proved to be just as impressive and enjoyable with every single revisit. 

That wasn’t this sake. It was actually their Karakuchi Junmai. However, upon further investigation, I also came to appreciate what this brewer can accomplish with the Omachi rice varietal. Mitobe Shuzo is deeply invested in their local rice production, however Mitobe-san’s love for Omachi is palpable, and it shows across their product line. 

The sake that Mitobe Sake Brewery produces shouldn’t exist. Their “dry” sake isn’t all that dry, yet somehow harbors all of the great properties of a finely crafted dry sake. Their ginjo-style sake (such as this one) is by no means in-your-face in the way that many lauded ginjos can be, yet it still manages to subtly swoon those itching for that expressiveness. Their sake somehow manages to hit the strike zone written on the label while simultaneously defying expectations in the best way possible: with subtlety and character. 

All of their sake – this Omachi in particular – is right at home at your soba joint or izakaya, however it shines equally bright alongside Parma ham or a Korma curry. This sake also stands up to maturation (at low temp) and service at relatively high temp, making it incredibly versatile. If you ever happen to stumble upon the seasonal release of the unpasteurized (nama) version, do yourself a favor and snag a bottle. 

This isn’t merely a great starter sake, it’s the definition of a staple sake.      

Brewery: Miyasaka Sake Brewing Co.

Region: Suwa, Nagano Prefecture

Brand: Masumi

Label: Sparkling Origarami

Type: Junmai Ginjo 

Sparkling sake seems to be all the craze and products are pretty much a dime a dozen at the moment, with styles and quality all over the map. TheJapan Awasake Association has done all kinds of incredible work investing in raising the bar for, and establishing clear quality standards, while supporting breweries with the know-how to create a fine sparkling sake. The Awasake offering from Masumi is a true technical marvel, to be honest. 

But it’s also about 50 bucks. It’s a brilliant product, but if you’re just getting into sake, there are other options out there which are not only exceptional in flavour and quality, they also express themselves in ways that are truly unique to the category without climbing into a price point that might make it tough to return to, regardless of how tasty it might be.

I serve Masumi’s Sparkling Sake Origarami…everywhere, and for pretty much any occasion. This sake is the embodiment of crowd-pleaser. Everything their official description says is entirely true. Open a bottle for a casual BBQ, a shenanigan-filled dance party, or a quiet dinner for two. The koji-derived sweetness along with the hints of pear and gentle effervescence make this truly a sake that compliments whatever is on the table. 

Oh, and if you’re looking for something minus-the-bubbles that’s gentle, but more umami-driven, their Yawaraka isn’t a bad place to start either.  

Brewery: Kidoizumi Shuzo

Region: Isumi, Chiba Prefecture

Brand: Kidoizumi

Label: AFS

Type: Junmai Hot-yamahai

Bias alert (again): This is where I cut my teeth brewing for several years. I live a mere few minutes from where this stuff gets made. This is my home court.

However, before I was ever involved with Kidoizumi in any real capacity, I was also convinced that AFS is one of the most important sake being made today. Period. 

This sake has been in a stylistic category all its own for roughly 50 years. People still don’t know how to categorise it, and it’s incredibly divisive. There aren’t many people that “kind of like” AFS. They either take it (and run away with it), or leave it. The funny thing is, those that love it have all kinds of relationships with sake. There are a lot of sake-in-the-bloodstream level aficionados that hold AFS on a pedestal all its own. A lot of those same types of people not only don’t care for it, they kind of despise it.

At the same time, a lot of sake “first-timers” try it and it digs it’s claws in deep, luring them into the category and never letting go. For others, they’re baffled by the entirely unique collage of tangy sweetness and bounce off of it, never to return.

Whether just getting acquainted with category or a seasoned veteran, you owe it to yourself to try this sake. Let the cards fall where they may.

Brewery: Niida Honke

Region: Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture

Brand: Shizenshu

Label: n/a

Type: Junmai Genshu


Niida Honke was one of the earliest producers to bring product to market post-war that was a return to “traditional” style production with an emphasis on “natural”. Literally, “natural sake,” the brewery has tasked itself with transforming their local area into a model for natural rice cultivation, where the Shizenshu label has served as many peoples’ introduction to the brewery for decades.

Niida Honke’s lineup is made up of three very clearly defined product lines, the bright and spunky, yet mellow Odayaka, the drier, more robust Tamura, and the sweeter, more round and full-bodied nature of Shizenshu. Depending on the individual, an entry from a sake in any one of these lineups could be an equally viable place to start. Shizenshu, however, walks a fine line of rich character and complexity without ever being overwhelming or feeling like it overstays its welcome. 

This particular junmai genshu is arguably the most “standard” product in the lineup, which also means it’s always available. That factor is not insignificant when it comes to getting started with sake. It means you can find it – and enjoy it – again, and with relative ease. Even though it’s a genshu (undiluted) and has a rice polishing of only 80%, it doesn’t drink like it carries nearly that level of weight. At the same time, once you bring it to the table, it can stand up to just about anything you throw at it. 

While it’s a great “starter sake,” it’s also a great introduction to a brewery defined by incredible sake, which is backed up by some of the most ambitious commitments to sustainable agriculture and natural resource preservation in the entire industry. Sipping Shizenshu isn’t just supporting Niida Honke, it’s arguably one of the most direct contributions you can make to saving sake.

Interested in discovering more sake to try? Check out these recommendations from other sake experts! 

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