Flavor World

What you need to know to choose and taste a sake

Get to know the types of this typical Japanese drink and how to harmonize sake with food

Fruity, floral or spice aromas. Flavors that refer to the taste of pineapple, banana, melon, pear. Sensations normally associated with wine tasting are possible to be perceived when savoring… sake.

The traditional Japanese drink has been breaking down barriers with each passing day and conquering Brazilian connoisseurs. “Consumption in Brazil doubles, year after year,” reveals consultant Alexandre Tatsuya Iida, one of the country’s leading drink specialists. He holds the title of “Sake Samurai” (ambassador for sake), conferred by The Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council .

Alexandre Iida

He explains that the increase in demand for sake is primarily due to overcoming prejudice. “A lot of people thought it was a strong, unpalatable drink, similar to drip. In fact, sake is closer to wine ”, he explains.

Sakê, drink made from rice

Sake is a beverage obtained from the fermentation of rice, following the typical rigor of Japanese culture. But it is not made with any rice. There are two types of rice, shokumai (“eating” rice) and sakamai (“sake” rice). The difference between them lies in the amount of starch and protein present in each one.

In addition to the types being different, the way of planting also counts: sakamai is more fragile, does not support the use of pesticides, needs to be grown in extremely wet soils and requires manual harvesting.

The quality of the water used also has a great influence on the production of the drink. Manufacturers choose between “hard” or “soft” water, a designation that has to do with the minerals (and how much they are contained), such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus.

A sake made with “hard” water gives the drink more full-bodied characteristics, while the “mole” offers more delicate properties. “One is no better than the other. The type of water only defines what style of sake you want to obtain ”, explains Iida.

Polishing level of rice

Another aspect that influences the quality of the drink is the level of polishing of the rice grains. The more polished, the more sophisticated the sake becomes. Thus, we have several categories of the drink: junmai, Honjouzou, Tokudetsu, Guinzo and Daiguinzo.

In each category, there are several types of sake, which are distinguished from each other according to aspects such as type of filtration, pasteurization and addition of alcohol.

Thus, there are semi-sweet (carbonated), dry and liqueur (or sweet) sake. There are also the extravagant, in which gold flakes or threads are added. “But this luxury does not interfere with anything in the taste”, warns the specialist. There are also sakés for culinary use and even exotic types like akazane, which is prepared with red rice.

How to choose and taste a sake: Harmonization

Like wine, sake can also be used to harmonize dishes. According to Alexandre Iida, it is perfectly possible to combine the drink with different types of food, from fish to game meat, cheese, pasta and poultry. In addition to the type of sake, the serving temperature of the drink interferes with the quality of the harmonization. “The same sake can have very different characteristics”, he reveals. The temperature can range from 5 to up to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Interestingly, it is difficult to achieve a good combination of sake with dishes based on… rice! “Combining with sushi and risotto is very complicated,” he says. He explains that this is due to the amount of starch present in these dishes, which turn into sugars and end up potentiating those present in the drink.

Unsuccessful Americanizations

Interestingly, sake ended up spreading in Brazil more through the American influence than directly from the Japanese – despite significant migratory cycles from the eastern country, mainly in the early 20th century and during World War II.

This American interference caused distortions and inventions to land, such as the use of cream cheese and fruit in sushi and even the size of the temakis. “In Japan, a temaki fits between your fingers, made to be eaten with a single bite. This giant, which looks more like a Big Mac, does not exist there ”, warns the consultant.

The Americanization of Japanese habits, of course, contaminated the consumption of sake. The supposed tradition of overflowing the container, under the pretext of wishing for prosperity, does not exist in Japan. “Japanese hates waste. Did he have the hardest job making sake and then throwing it away?

In fact, in Japan, the masu (square container present in several oriental restaurants here in Brazil), has ceased to be used to consume sake for a long time. “It was a meter of portions of rice that, in the absence of anything better, ended up being used to consume the drink. But today, they drink from glasses – the same ones used to drink liquor ”.

Another habit very present in Brazil turns out to be a gigantic gaffe, if practiced in Japan: the addition of salt. Alexandre Iida explains that this practice was common in the feudal period, a time when sake was of poor quality. “It was a kind of canjica with alcohol, white, sweet and sickening”, he reveals. To alleviate the bad taste, it was customary to lick the salt and then drink it. “If you go to a restaurant in Japan and ask for salt to drink with the sake, they will probably expel you, as they will consider it an offense. They will understand that you considered the sake so bad that it only “goes down” with salt ”.

Sake tasting

Sake tasting

To taste a sake, the specialists use a white porcelain cup, which at the bottom contains two blue circles – it is the so-called “eye of the snake”. The white of the porcelain serves to measure the degree of transparency of the drink, while the blue of the “eye” to evaluate the color of the sake.

Sakê and aesthetics

Alexandre reveals a curious property of sake: the rejuvenation of the skin. He reports that this feature was discovered by chance, by pharmacist Arinobu Fukuhara , founder of the Shiseido cosmetic factory. On a visit to a sake factory, he noticed that old workers, despite their very wrinkled faces, had smooth and very youthful hands. After a series of experiments he discovered that the drink had components that contributed to the revitalization of skin cells and created a treatment, in which the person was immersed in a bathtub containing sake at 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

sake categories

Sake Categories


Use of 50% or less of rice

It provides a more delicate, very aromatic sake, with a degree of difficulty in production, since the external part of the rice where the proteins and fibers are found is discarded, which loses the protection of the core. The entire structure of the factory is cooled, so that harmful bacteria do not contaminate the drink.

The aromatic characteristics of this category of sake, very reminiscent of a very sweet melon, apple, pear, lychee or banana. Some may feel papaya, coconut water, anise, fennel, lemongrass, etc.

For this level of sake, only the Sakamai group rice, a specific grain for sake production, can be polished.

GUINJO | 吟 醸 

Use of 51% to 60% of Rice

Called abroad Sake Premium, while the Daiguinjo Super Premium, Guinjo, are much more appreciated by the Japanese people, as they cost a little less than Daiguinjo, but you can enjoy an excellent sake.

It has very similar characteristics to Daiguinjo, but it is a little more acidic and dry.


There are 2 conditions for naming a Special sake. We talked about polishing rice and we have already seen that there are 2 groups of rice, Sakamai and Shokumai, which is the rice we eat on the table.

In the 1st condition it is: The use of 60% or less of Shokumai rice. That is, if the producer uses common grains to prepare the sake and discards more than 40%, he gains the right to use this category. Could you make a Guinjo or Daiguinjo sake? Remember that to be a premium sake, you must use only Sakamai.

2nd Condition is: Regardless of the polishing of the rice, but if I use 100% Sakamai grain (without blend), I also win if the right to use the name of Special. An example. If I use 70% of that rice, because it has more noble grains, it becomes a Tokubetsu sake.


JUNMAI | 純 米

These are more everyday sakes, which you can drink as well as harmonize, not that the above sakes cannot. They present more discreet aromas than premiums and more complex flavors, rich in amino acids, and very tasty. Here the use of the rice group may vary. Use of Shokumai only, Blend of Shokumai and Blend of Shokumai with Sakamai.

NOTE: The terms HONJOUZOU and JUNMAI, when we speak of Categories of Sakes, point to Traditional Sakes. When we talk about TYPES of sakes, they change the meanings.

For this level of sake, only the Sakamai group rice, a specific grain for sake production, can be polished.

Source: Alexandre Tatsuya Iida, “Sakê Samurai”, from Adega do Sakê

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