Sake drinking guide
Ordering sake in an izakaya, and a glossary of sake terminology


Drinking sake

Most Japanese restaurants and izakaya in Japan serve sake (called nihonshu in Japanese), but the quality and breadth of the selection can vary greatly. Smaller mom-and-pop shops and local neighborhood places might carry only one brand, but many modern izakaya these days tend to offer a reasonable selection of premium jizake by the glass. The word jizake (地酒) refers to regional brands from smaller breweries, and seeing the word on a shop sign or a menu is a clue that you're likely to find good sake there.

Some izakaya really take their sake seriously, and offer limited-edition seasonal sake from small breweries, with a list that changes monthly or weekly. These places can often be recognized by the presence of a sugidama (cedar ball) - a tightly bound bunch of cedar boughs clipped into a ball shape - hung near the entrance.

Inexpensive, mediocre sake is often served heated to mask the flavor. Premium sake is usually served cold, but certain high-quality sakes can also be served warm on occasion. If you're not sure, cold is usually the safer bet. Another rule of thumb - if there's only one brand on the menu and they ask if you want it hot or cold, it's usually best to stick with beer.

Some izakaya serve sake by the glass, and some serve it in thin-necked decanters called tokkuri or in similar vessels, in which case it is ordered in units called go. Ichi-go (one go) is 180ml (around 6 oz.), and is enough for several small cups for two people; if there are four or more at the table it's better to order one or more ni-go (two-go) containers.

The host (or whoever grabs the tokkuri first) will pour the sake into everyone's o-choko (small sake cup), after which someone will pour for the host. One tokkuri of sake divided among two or more people isn't a huge amount to drink, so you can try more than one type of sake during the course of a meal if you're so inclined.

Types of sake

Sake is divided into a number of categories based on how it's made, and these are described in the vocabulary section below. A few to note are nama, which is unpasteurized sake, often with a fresher, fruitier bounce; yamahai, a special brewing technique that results in a richer, gamier flavor; and nigori, generally sweet "cloudy" sake with unfermented rice particles that haven't been filtered out.

The sake section of a menu will typically list the brand name; the category and type of sake (e.g. ginjo, daiginjo, nama, etc.); the prefecture it comes from; the nihonshu number (roughly indicating how sweet or dry it is, with higher numbers being dry and lower numbers being sweet); and the price. As you try different sakes you may discover your own preferences for sweet or dry types and maybe particular prefectures. It may sound simplistic, but the price can also serve as a useful rough indicator of quality - craft sake isn't a world of with multi-billion-yen marketing campaigns, so the price generally reflects the work that goes into making it.

Around a dozen different sake varieties are ready for tasting at this casual standing bar, along with a dozen wines, several types of shochu, and Japanese liqueurs like yuzushu. The standing-bar area takes up about half the floor space of this well-stocked liquor shop, and there are various wine and craft-beer magazines to peruse while you sip. There are even a few chairs if you arrive.... [Continue reading]
Novel, fusion-style udon is the specialty here, but what first attracted our attention was the inviting little sake bar standing at the front of the shop. A couple dozen well-chosen craft sakes from around the country are served in taster-size 60ml or full 120ml portions, in your choice of standard sake cups or proper wine glasses (we recommend the latter). The udon menu features.... [Continue reading]
The excellent sake list (some 130 labels are generally in stock) is supported by a reliable menu of standard izakaya fare - charcoal-grilled meats and fish, yakitori, and sake-friendly nibbles like satsuma-age. A sake sommelier is ready to offer advice, and will often suggest bottles not on the menu. Try to get a seat at the counter if you don't like cigarette smoke with your.... [Continue reading]
Nihonshu Stand Moto is a very informal bar that specializes in nihonshu, in this case quite a good selection of it at reasonable prices. The food menu is more extensive than you'd expect, dominated by small sake-friendly dishes like smoked mackerel and fried oysters. Open from noon on weekends. (Note that there's a small Y300 table charge.) .... [Continue reading]
Dozens of varieties of craft sake are ready for tasting at this small sake bar and cafe attached to the Jam Hostel. They also offer umeshu (ake "plum wine") and several other sake-based fruit liqueurs. [Continue reading]
Beneath this ordinary-looking sake shop - through a hole in the floor and down a narrow ladder - is a hidden sake tasting cave with a big selection of premium sake from around the country, including many koshu (aged sakes). Tasting-size glasses are just Y200 each.... [Continue reading]
Sawara is one of the more stylish sake bars in town, with late-night hours (until 4am), a live DJ spinning dance music, and a panoramic nighttime view of the JR Osaka station area. You can sample a dozen or so sake by the glass starting at Y600, with good oden and other casual dishes if you're hungry. The sake list seems to be aimed at both neophytes and more advanced sake drinkers.... [Continue reading]
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