SAKE: STORAGE & SERVICE
In this guide we will discuss proper methods for storing and serving sake including temperatures, vessels, etiquette, aging, shelf life, faults, food and sake pairing, and more.
Sake, like wine, needs to be stored properly to ensure maximum quality retention. There are a few things to consider when storing sake:
Heat can damage sake, so it should be stored chilled, below 55°F (13°C), and ideally at refrigerated temperatures, below 48°F (8°C). The more delicate the sake, the cooler the sake should be stored. Nama should always be stored refrigerated to prevent microbial spoilage.
Sake bottles do not need to be stored on their side like wine, as they do not have cork closures. Sake should be stored upright for two reasons: first, to reduce the surface contact between the sake and oxygen. Second, to keep minimal contact between the metallic closure and the sake.
Light, especially ultraviolet light, can damage sake. Most sake bottles are green or brown in color to help block light waves. Bottles should be stored in a dark place to maximize freshness.
Sake, unless intentionally aged, should be served within a year of release. The date will be shown on the label typically in the format of YY/MM or the Brewing Year (BY). The brewing year will be the year of the current Japanese era within the July 1 to June 30 brewing season. The current Japanese era is Heisei, which began in 1989, making 2021 the 32nd brewing year. If a sake is bottle before July 1st, it will have 2020 (or 31BY) on the label. If a sake is bottled after July 1st, it will have 2021 (or 32BY) on the label.
Sake should be poured for others and never for oneself. When pouring, to show respect and care for the other, you should hold the bottle with two hands, one at the neck of the bottle, the other at the base of the bottle. The purpose of smaller cups used for sake consumption is to make sure everyone is looking after one another while consuming the bottle of sake.
A standard serving of sake is 180mL (6oz). Sake measurements are typically in increments of 180mL to coordinate with traditional Japanese measurements. 180cc (equivalent to 180mL) was the traditional measurement for rice in Japan, however, being rather out of date, the masu (shown below) has been altered from a rice measuring tool to a show of gratitude while pouring sake. An ochoko or shot glass is placed inside and then sake poured over into the masu to show gratitude and generosity to the guest.
Below are traditional service vessels. If space or funds are limited for your sake service, the next best thing is a simple all purpose or white wine glass.
Pour Over Service
CHILLED SAKE SERVICE "REISHU": to chill sake, place the bottle in a refrigerator or an ice bath.
Delicate styles of sake, such as daiginjō, ginjō, nama, and sparkling sake are ideally served chilled to showcase their subtle aromatics.
HEATED SAKE SERVICE "O-KAN": to heat sake, pour the sake into a tokkuri, and place it into a hot water bath, or an automated machine known as a kan-douko, until the sake is at the desired temperature. Chirori vessels are also used for heated sake.
Richer, fuller bodies styles of sake such as honjōzō, junmai, kimoto, and yamahai are great options for heating as it softens their intensity and flavors.
Heating sake dates back to the 9th century when aristocrats would warm sake to entertain their guests. By the 18th century heating sake was conducted year round, and a physician by the name of Kaibara Ekiken declared consuming warm sake improved chi, the energy current running through the human body.
Sake shows differently at different temperatures, the most common serving temperatures below are suzu-hie for chilled sake and atsu-kan for heated sake.
SHELF LIFE (UNOPENED):
Sake, unless intentionally aged, should be consumed within a year of release to taste the same way the brewer designed the sake to taste.
SHELF LIFE (OPENED):
Once a bottle of sake has been opened the quality will decrease due to contact with oxygen. Oxygen is not a friend to sake and the shelf life will depend on the style of sake. The more delicate the sake, the quicker the oxygen will manipulate the flavors. Delicate styles of sake, such as daiginjō, ginjō, nama, and sparkling sake should ideally be consumed with a few days of opening. Richer, fuller bodies styles of sake such as honjōzō, junmai, kimoto, and yamahai are more durable and can hold on for closer to a month after opening.
Sake in general is not designed to be aged as the flavors will diminish with time in the bottle. Some people however enjoy the flavor changes that occur with bottle age. The best styles of sake suited for aging are produced with quality in mind, with a lower seimai buai, and with rich and savory flavors. Recommended styles for aging are genshu, junmai, kimoto, muroka, and yamahai.
If a sake is not stored properly the sake can become faulty. Below are common sake faults:
"Out of Condition" resulting from a sake that has been improperly stored or aged too long resulting in aromas of caramel, toffee, pickled or rotten vegetables.
An out of condition unpasteurized sake due to lack of refrigeration resulting in aromas of malt and cured meat.
The bottle has been opened and exposed to oxygen which results in diminished, stale, nutty aromas and a darkened color.
If the bottle has been damaged by light exposure it can develop aromas of sulphur, musk, or burnt hair.
Sake, especially unpasteurized to sake, is sensitive to microbial spoilage which will result in aromas of eggs, garlic, onion, rancid cheese, sour milk, or sweat.
Many off-flavors can occur if hygiene is not taken into consideration during sake production, such as:
Butter: caused by a lactic acid, known as diacetyl.
Soap and cabbage: caused by caproic acid.
Cork taint: caused by improperly cleaned wooden vessels and 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA).
Acetone or paint thinner: caused by volatile acidity.
FOOD AND SAKE
Sake is traditionally consumed for any and all occasions and typically served with food. Sake pairings, however, are a relatively new introduction to the world of fine dining.
Traditionally, sake is paired with local cuisines, for example sakes made near the coast are generally lighter in style to pair with seafood based cuisine common to the area. Sakes made from central Japan tend to be richer in style to pair with the savory meat based cuisine common to the area. We purposely use the words "generally" and "tend" as there are many producers who are exceptions to these common production styles.
Sake, in regards to other alcoholic beverages, is rather low in acidity, with a unique texture and delicacy, making it an ideal companion to a wide range of cuisines. Unlike the all too well known "red wine with meat, white wine with fish", there are no common rules to pairing sake. The joys of pairing sake is in the experimentation, cuisines where many wines struggle to pair, sake almost always will make a match.
Some guidelines to follow are:
Spicy food pairs well with sakes that are fruity, sweet, or rich in style with lower alcohol and acidity.
Sweet food pairs well with sakes that are lower in acidity and have high levels of sweetness.
Bitter food pairs well with sakes that have lower levels of bitterness.
Acidic food pairs well with sakes that are savory with higher acidity.
Salty food pairs well with sakes that are savory with higher acidity.
Savory food pairs well with sakes that are fruity with lower acidity.