SAKE: Just the FAQs
Every newspaper and online article about Sake starts the same way: "What's a Junmai?" "What's a Ginjo?" While I can happily supply that information, it might surprise you to learn that most people buying Sake rarely ever ask about that. After years of selling Sake, volunteering at events, and hosting my own, many of those questions become repetitive. Here are the Frequently Asked Questions, and their answers.
Is Sake distilled?
No! While most Sake is clear and higher in alcohol than other brews, Sake is not distilled.
Traditional distilled alcohol does exist in Japan, and it is called Shochu (pronounced "show-chew"). Try not to confuse it with Korean Soju. This can be tricky because, in America, they are classified and often labeled as Soju.
How much alcohol does Sake Have?
Most Sake you find is 14-16% ABV.
It can be lower or higher, but by (Japanese) law, anything 22% or above cannot be labeled what we in English call Sake. (In Japan "sake" literally means alcohol, and what we call Sake has a few names (like Nihonshu "knee hone shoe" and Seishu "say shoe").
Is Sake really "rice wine"? No.
BUT: Sake is alcohol, produced primarily from water and rice, with typically just slightly more alcohol than wine. Other similarities: Some fortified, aged, sparkling, dessert, and cooking versions exist. You can and should enjoy the more elegant or fragrant Sake like wine. It pairs incredibly well with cheese (better than wine, even). There are sweet and dry versions. It can be enjoyed before, after, or during a meal.
Is Sake Gluten-Free?
Yes*. It is also vegan, does not contain sulfites, and frequently have kosher certification.
*Seishu (What we call "Premium Sake") is 100% gluten-free always. Here is a great visual explanation. There may be Sake-based drinks out there with added ingredients that contain gluten. If you have a serious allergy, always check the ingredients label. American law requires the translated information.
I like the unfiltered ones, what is that called?
Nigori (pronounced "knee Gregory", without the "Gre") Sake.
Nigori means "cloudy" but sometimes gets labeled "unfiltered". One of the basic Japanese rules of Sake (like keeping it under 22%) is that Sake must be filtered. So basically what they mean to call Nigori is "less filtered".
What's the best kind of Sake?
The most expensive and time-consuming Sake to make are Junmai Daiginjo (pronounced "June, my dye green Joe" without the "r" in green).
But that does not make them "the best"! In addition to the brewery's execution, and your personal taste, "the best" Sake can be a well-made example of whatever style best pairs with the occasion. There is no one style or label of Sake that goes with everything, but everything has some Sake out there that can enhance the occasion.