If you know wine, meet sake!
If you’re new to sake, or trying to introduce it to someone who is, it can feel hard to explain. One approach is to compare sake to something better known – like wine.
Already drink wine? Then you have everything you need to enjoy sake, all you need are some glasses and a fridge. It’s as easy as picking up a different bottle next time you go shopping. Sake is around the same strength as wine too, tending to be a few percent higher in alcohol.
When it comes to enjoying sake and pairing it with food, there are a few differences to bear in mind.
Imagine biting into a grape. It’s sweet, tangy and full of flavor.
Compare that to a mouthful of white rice. It’s softly savory but much more neutral.
Wine is high in acidity, phenols such as tannins, and plenty of strong flavor compounds from grapes. This means that many wines pack a punch on the flavor side, but this can also work against wine when it comes to food – some wines clash with some dishes.
Sake is much more forgiving. The savory note in rice – which is umami, the mysterious “sixth taste” – creates a gentle backdrop of flavor that blends well with almost any meal. Like rice compared to a grape, the profile of most sake is lighter and more delicate than the average wine.
Don’t think that means that sake isn’t interesting from a flavor perspective. Think of what would happen if you gave the same ingredients (even simple ones) to over a thousand skilled chefs, some from culinary traditions that go back hundreds of years. Despite the similar starting point, each one would produce something unique. And the same is true for sake. Each brewery brings their own experience, philosophy and vision to the brewing process, creating a wide range of distinctive sake.
Wine is a perfect bridge to sake. It’s actually how I was first introduced – I was translating for a Japanese wine merchant who added sake to his portfolio, but found my wine knowledge was not enough to fully express the flavors and aromas in sake. I took some courses and did some tasting practice… but what really made me fall in love with sake was the people. Meeting the brewers, seeing how passionate and devoted they are to their craft, was what convinced me to dive further into this seemingly simple but ultimately fascinating world.
Written by Arline Lyons
Arline Lyons is a Japanese to English translator specialising in biology and food and drink, based in Zurich, Switzerland. She holds several advanced qualifications in sake, and focuses on translating for the sake industry, making sake news available in English, and holding introductory sake workshops. She regularly posts English summaries of Japanese news for sake professionals on Taste Translation, and information and ideas for those new to sake on Discover Sake.
When in Japan, she tries to visit as many sake breweries as possible!