Sake (pronounced SAH-kay) has long had a special role in Japanese culture. It is considered to be the essence of rice and, while it is typically enjoyed for everyday drinking, it is also used in ceremonial rituals, such as weddings, blessing sumo matches, and imperial ceremonies. Due to its cultural significance, it should come as no surprise then that serving sake has its own etiquette. The next time you wish to enjoy a sip of sake, keep these guidelines in mind to appear a true sake enthusiast.

Sake is not wine. While sake is often referred to as “rice wine,” it is actually brewed more like beer. Sake is brewed from a mash of sake rice, yeast, water and koji. Koji converts the starch of sake rice into sugar for fermentation. Similar to beer, sake is meant to be consumed fresh, not aged like wine.

But, like wine, sake has different varieties with unique aromas and flavors. Sake will display various aromas and flavors impacted by the rice, water, yeast and brewing style of the sake brew master or toji (pronounced TOH-jee). The sake rice must be milled, or “polished,” in order to remove impurities, proteins and oils from the outer layers of the grain, leaving the starchy center for brewing. The amount of polishing will also impact the flavor.

The different grades and types of sake include:

  • Junmai: Pure rice sake where the polishing of the rice is unspecified, but generally down to at least 70% of its original size. It is generally fuller-bodied and earthy.
  • Junmai Ginjo: Pure rice sake where the polishing of the rice is down to at least 60% of its original size. It is generally medium-bodied and fragrant.
  • Junmai Dai Ginjo: Pure rice sake where the polishing of the rice is down to at least 50% of its original size. It is generally smooth, delicate and refined.
  • Honjozo: Sake where brewer’s alcohol has been added during the brewing process, and where the polishing of the rice is down to at least 70% of its original size.
  • Nama sake: Unpasteurized sake. It is believed to be fresher in taste.
  • Nigori: In reference to sake, “nigori” means any sake that is cloudy or not perfectly clear. It is minimally filtered, thus leaving behind rice particles to varying degrees (depending on the sake).

Sake can be served hot or cold. The temperature at which sake is served is dependent upon the type of sake. Hot sake is served in traditional ceramic carafes and cups in order to retain the warmth of the drink. Benihana first popularized sake in the United States with its Benihana Hot Sake, and it remains one of the restaurant’s most popular beverages. Chilled sake should be served in traditional glassware in order to take in the aroma.

Never pour your own sake. One should always pour sake for others but never for one’s self. This is rooted in Japanese culture’s ideals of courtesy and hospitality. This applies to both hot and cold sake. At Benihana, we instill this ideal in our servers when we bring a carafe of sake to the table. As much as possible, we try to have the servers always pouring the sake for guests in order to maintain this tradition.