Friday, April 12, 2024

Cheers to Sake!

Sake is a staple on menus around town, but how much do we really know about this Japanese drink made from fermented rice? We tapped Vaughan Dugan, owner of Kapow Noodle Bar and certified sake sommelier, to share his knowledge of this ancient beverage.

Vaughan Dugan

It all starts with the rice, but this isn’t your usual table rice. Sake rice is larger and has a starch-rich center. That center dictates the quality of the sake, so once the rice is milled, it is polished. The more of the rice that is polished away to get to that starchy core, the better the sake. It will be smoother and more delicate. Polishing is also time-intensive, thus yielding a higher price point. The rice polish ratio (RPR, or seimaibuai in Japanese) refers to the percentage of grain that remains after polishing, so sake with a 60% RPR means 40% of the outer layer has been polished off. Ultra-premium sake can have a polish rate of 30%, while table sake can have 70%. 

Percentages can get confusing, so if you’re going to remember just one thing, look for Jumani on the label. It translates to “pure,” so you’re guaranteed it wasn’t enhanced with additional alcohol or additives. Dugan’s best advice is to keep trying different types of sake. “There is no right or wrong answer. Stick with what you love. Drink what you like.”

Fun Facts

  • Say sake (sock-ay) not sake (sa-key)
  • Don’t call it wine. It’s not. It’s actually closer to beer, if anything. It’s brewed, not distilled (like liquor).
  • About 100 varieties of rice are specifically grown to make sake. 
  • It’s made with only four ingredients: water, rice, yeast and koji mold.
  • Sake is gluten-free and sulfite-free. 
  • ABV ranges from 14-16%  (compared to wine’s average 12% and beer’s 5%).
  • It is meant to be drunk when it’s young (for the most part).
  • It’s referred to as the national beverage of Japan, but don’t call it sake there. It’s called nihonshu. 
  •  The US is brewing sake, and some are worth checking out. 

Advice for Novices

  • Sake’s price reflects its quality = higher price, better quality (generally). The Japanese have integrity in their art form, so if they spend time polishing it and making it, they charge accordingly. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find good sake at an affordable price. Search out deals and small brewers. (See below for suggested brands)
  • It should always be served slightly chilled. 
  • Don’t pour your own sake. The host will always pour for guests, and the last person will pour for the host. 
  • Never fill your cup to the rim. 
  • Don’t shake the bottle.
  • Know how to read the bottle: the sake meter value (SMV) +5 means the sake is very dry, while at the opposite end, -5 means it’s very sweet. (and 0 is neutral)
  • Look for the milliliters on menus to determine the size of the bottle. Usually, it’s either 300 or 720.

Categories Explained

  • Junmai Daiginjo – ultra-premium (50% or more of rice coating is removed)
  • Junmai Ginjo – super premium (40% of coating removed)
  • Junmai – premium (30% of coating removed) 
  • Futsu – table sake (less than 30% removed) includes hot sake and Nijori (unfiltered cloudy sake).


Intro ($): Soto (it’s approachable and goes well with everything)
Intermediate ($$): Shimizo-No-Mai (Pure Snow or Pure Dusk)
Worth the Splurge ($$$): Dassai (23 Otter Festival)

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Christie Galeano-DeMott
Christie Galeano-DeMott
Christie is a food lover, travel fanatic, bookworm, Francophile, and she believes art in all its forms is good for the soul. When she’s not writing about the incredible dishes, people and places that capture South Florida's culture and vibe, Christie is irresistibly happy in the company of her husband and a glass of red wine.

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