A Field Guide to Sake


Found out that if you can chew a piece of potato for around a minute without vomiting, it starts to becomes sweeter. This is because the enzymes in saliva start converting the starch into sugar. Why is this interesting? Because the first things you think of when you hear sugar is alcohol. Rice doesn’t have sugar, it has starch which makes things difficult for novice cultures. The anecdotal origin of sake in Japan is that it was first made by chewing the rice, spitting it out, and then letting it ferment. It’s also said that this skill was learnt by watching monkeys and their resultant more than usual silliness (dancing, unplanned copulation, kebobs…). Now obviously it’s a lot slicker now, unplanned copulation may also require suave behaviour for example. Sake production has also moved forward in a way that’s so complicated that I can’t explain it now. Not that I don’t want to but I think the more pressing need is a buying guide.

The first rule is that if it has the roman characters “o” “n” and “e” on top and the roman characters “c” “u” and “p” below, it is to be avoided, unless desperate, same for ones in cardboard containers. After that, it’s a little trickier. Click on the two label pics and you’ll find notes attached explaining each kanji character. There aren’t that many kanji characters so it isn’t that hard.

sakelabelIngredients: The label pictured has three ingredients, 米 rice, 米こうじ rice kouji (the mould that converts the rice’s starch into sugars), and 醸造アルコール brewer’s alcohol. Pure rice sake, junmaishu, will only have the first two. This one is honjouzou which only has a limited amount of brewers alcohol. Beyond this – sugars, acids, and down it goes.

Another guide is the percentage of rice that remains after polishing. This will be expressed as a percentage of the original weight. 50% is exceptional, 60% good, and 70% the cut off for special designation. This one is 65%

sakelabeldryness Taste: If you’re still stumped by wine labels, you can imagine how overwhelming it is to see 20 or so bottle of sake all in Japanese. The easy way is to work out if you’re a dry or a sweet person. Often this will be written on the label as a -/+ and a number representing residual sugar. +7 is very dry, -6 very sweet (close to a sauterne), with +1 around the middle. I tend to prefer very dry sake. This one has a dryness of +7 and the 辛口 karakuchi designation.

Acidity, sando, may also be shown. Lower numbers tend to taste watery and higher ones heavier and rougher. This one is 1.5 and tanrei, which is light.

Unfortunately, as the small bottle of Ozeki Karatanba I had was a roughy, my theory of most of the good stuff staying in Japan still stands. It’s worth looking out for some though. For some reason it seems to have the deep drunkedness of whisky with the mild euphoria of champagne. The range of flavours is also engaging and described by sweet amai, dry karai, bitter nigai, sour suppai, and astringet shibui. A different approach to wine.

Despite previous research opportunities, much of the technical information cribbed from the extremely good The Insider’s Guide to Sake by Phillip Harper, a British ex-pat brewer. Well worth a read for any refreshment lover. You could also have a good look around eSake. And sake, serve it chilled, yeah.

jared bailey


  1. Santos’s avatar

    there’s an interesting-ish half-guide/half-advert for sake in the winter edition of kateigaho international edition. i have a print copy, would you like…?
    that one cup is *great*. for cleaning up after puppy piss.

  2. Anthony’s avatar

    hungan por favor! (this is getting like the trading post here)

    One cup. You really can wash your hands of blood in blood.

  3. Nabakov’s avatar

    Speaking as a hearty saki (and plum wine) drinker now that’s information I can use. Plan to put it to test this evening as a bunch of us are having a Nipponese pigout.

    Will report back later on how the rating systems work out in practice (…don’t stay up).

  4. Anthony’s avatar


    Very good. It’s a good bluffers guide to impressing your friends. If they disagree a slight lean forward of the head and a raise of the eyebrows usually keeps ’em quiet.

    Staying up? On a Sunday? In Perth, no chance. Look forward to the report.

  5. tokyo goat’s avatar

    this weekend picked myself up a bottle of Koshinokambai, which is regarded by many as one of the finest. From Niigata, where the water is clean and the rice is of the highest grade. It is karakuchi but not sure of the rest.

  6. Anthony’s avatar

    This one. Can’t remeber seeing it but that doesn’t surprise me. Can’t go wrong with Niigata sake.

    Let me know how it goes. Saving it for the cherry blossoms?

  7. tokyo goat’s avatar

    saving it for when you get over here, so hurry up fool. はやく!!

  8. Anthony’s avatar

    Well I had kinda hoped.

  9. Nabakov’s avatar

    Wish I could report back with detailed info you could use to benchmark the sake data you highlighted.

    Instead we all got shitfaced, one of us got a parking ticket, and an odd number of shoes are still missing.

    However we came that close (that fucking close) to nicking the Saki Bear – if it wasn’t for the sudden absence of predictable gravity.

    None the less, the staff, kitchen and cusine of Osaka in Belford St, St Kilda were excellent..and very patient and long suffering.

  10. Anthony’s avatar

    Shitfaced, loss of shoes, irrational urge to nick stuff sounds like a perfect Tokyo evening.

    very patient and long suffering. Japanes staff. love ’em. I think the strongest cuation I had was “Very sorry but you are being a little noisy for the other guests”. As for your Aussie bouncer – saw one giving shit to a blind guy on St Paddy’s day.

  11. pieman’s avatar

    I’m still a bit lost with this. I was recently given a weighty bottle of something called Dewazakura. Although I haven’t gotten too anal on label comparisons, I can’t see the words you mention. Was I bought a dud? It came from Tokyo.

    Looking forward to your response. Sincerely yours

    Mr. Feeling somewhat cheap in Saigon who suspects his freinds buy him shit presents.

  12. Anthony’s avatar

    Sorry for the late reply, been away being Eastery.There are some product descriptions you can see on the Dewazakura product page. They do export and there is a chance they leave off a lot of the info. I had to find mine by peeling off the cover label. They seem to make some pretty good stuff so there’s only one way to find out if your friends are duds or not and that’s to try the sake. At the very worst it’s liquid consolation.

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