Have you ever tried sake, one of Japan’s popular traditional alcoholic drinks? Nowadays, most Japanese restaurants all around the world serve sake because it pairs exceptionally well with Japanese food. If you’re a bit familiar with the beverage, you’ll know that it is a rice wine and that no two sake are exactly alike.
In fact, people with a trained palate will easily taste the difference between sweet sake and dry sake. But how do you know what sake to buy and what are the differences? Let us give you an overview of some of the best Japanese sake brands so you’ll know the next time you go to order!
1. A Quick Overview of Sake
Sake has been brewed in Japan for more than 1000 years, and nowadays even the smallest town has an izakaya that serves the slightly flowery beverage along with typical Japanese dishes such as sashimi and nikujaga.
To produce sake, rice is polished, washed, and steamed. Then, mold and yeast are added to help the mixture ferment, and finally, the product is pressed, filtered, and pasteurized. The result is a clear and slightly sweet drink with an alcohol percentage between ~15-20% that is usually served chilled but can also be enjoyed warm depending on the drinker’s taste.
There are different types of sake depending on the exact ingredients, degrees of polishing, and other variables. Then there are also different varieties as well that are almost entirely different drinks. Examples are the non-alcoholic amazake, sparkling sake, nigori sake (cloudy), and namazake (unpasteurized). Now, let’s go over the most popular sake brands in Japan, divided by dry and sweet labels.
2. Popular Dry Sake Brands
Light and dry sake are considered beginner-friendly and pair well with light foods that don’t have a strong aftertaste like sushi and sashimi. Dry sake that has a rich flavor matches well with heavier dishes like grilled meat with flavorful sauces. These are good brands for dry sake:
- Dassai: You may have already heard of Dassai sake, as it is the most famous sake brand internationally. Try the Dassai 23 if you are a first-timer and you will surely get hooked on this high-quality and very polished Junmai Daiginjo sake. It has a nice aroma of melons and peaches, and an elegant, long dry finish.
- Harushika: Established in 1884, this sake brewery in Naramachi produces some of Nara’s best-known sakes. The Harushika’s Extra Dry Junmai Sake has flavors of dry herbs, mint, and sage and leaves a pleasant star anise aftertaste.
- Hakkaisan: Hailing from Niigata which is known for its superior rice and clean water, top-shelf sake Junmai Ginjo Hakkaisan brings out the full flavor of the high-quality rice that’s at its base.
- Kuromatsu Kenbishi: The Kuromatsu Kenbishi Honjozo has a rich umami taste and is heavy enough to go well with meat dishes. It is also the perfect brand for those who prefer their sake hot, as Kuromatsu Kenbishi’s flavor is enhanced when heated.
3. Popular Sweet Sake Brands
Light sweet sake has a floral and fruity taste that goes well with seafood and lightly fried food. Full-bodied sweet sake tends to have clear hints of dried fruit, herbs, or spice that go well with rich foods such as cheese-based foods and dishes with a lot of protein. These are good brands of sweet sake:
- Mio: The sake brand Mio is famous for its deep blue bottle that holds deliciously fresh sparkling sake. Mio is refreshing, fruity, and has a unique sweet aroma that feels light and dreamy in your mouth.
- Kubota: Kubota sake was created in the 1980s as a new brand to pair with the modern food of changing times. It is a clean, crisp sake that enhances umami and other flavors in your meal. Try the Kubota Junmai Daiginjo for a smooth and harmonious drink with a hint of pear.
- Jozen-Mizunogotoshi: Brewed by the renowned Shirataki brewery, Jozen-Mizunogotoshi Junmai Daiginjo is a top-quality sake in which only the core of the rice grain is used. The longer fermentation period gives this sake a sensible aroma with a rich and pleasant taste.
- Himezen: The name Himezen means “food of a princess”’, and this sake is indeed fit for royalty. It’s a unique sake that is slightly reminiscent of grapefruit juice and lemonade. This sake has a slightly lower than average alcohol percentage, is a great palate cleanser, and pairs well with seafood and especially with grilled crab.
- Fukunishiki Junmai Fu: This low-alcohol sake reminds many who taste it of wine with its sweet and sour flavor. Made by both traditional and modern techniques, Fukunishiki Junmai Fu is a perfect sake for wine-lovers who want to ease into trying sake.
- Hokusetsu Nobu YK35: Hokusetsu Nobu YK35 was created for the famous Nobu restaurant chain after chef Nobu was impressed by Hokusetsu sake’s high quality. The award-winning sake is made with the best rice, polished to perfection, and tastes flavorful yet delicate.
4. Budget-friendly Japanese Sake Brands
Are you in the mood for enjoying a few glasses of sake without breaking the bank? Then One Cup Sake is exactly what you are looking for. It is neither sweet nor dry and light-bodied, making it a sake that’s very easy to drink.
One Cup Sake, as the name implies, comes in a handy ready-to-drink glass cup and it pairs well with raw fish, home-cooked meals, and grilled foods. In Japan, it is available in many convenience stores for the wallet-friendly price of a few hundred yen.
5. Food and Drink Focused Tours in Japan
When you are in Japan, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice when it comes to good restaurants. Especially when you are traveling it is hard to make the right call at lunch or dinner if you are looking to taste the best of what the city where you are has to offer. This is when doing a private or group food tour would be an excellent choice.
You will be taken to the best places in town by an experienced local food guide who knows the menus inside and out, and who can also advise you on the best pairings of foods and drinks. You won’t have to worry about the language barrier because your guide is bi-lingual. We offer a sake-centered tour in Sendai and fun food tours including sake tasting in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Also, join our best evening tours for bar hopping in Asakusa, Asagaya, or Shinjuku to savor some delicious Japanese pairing foods and local’s favorite sake!
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Stefanie Akkerman moved from the Netherlands to Japan in 2013 with her Japanese husband and son. She jumped into the niche of Dutch tour guiding in Tokyo and Kamakura in 2015 and occasionally writes articles about all the great sights and activities Japan has to offer. She loves (Japanese) food, and to work that all off she goes diving, snorkeling, cycling, or hiking.
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