Guide to Sake by Natsuki Kikuya, Founder of the Museum of Sake

Our specialist for this month, Natsuki Kikuya,  is a Sake Samurai and the director of the Museum of Sake which offers information and training to a wide range of professionals and interested consumers on the varieties of sake.

She is also the qualification developing manager for WSET (Wine and Sprit Education Trust) Level 3 Awards in Sake, which is currently launching in 16 different cities around the world.

The UK is the tenth largest export market for sake and is leading the way in introducing Sake into other European countries. Interest in the drink grew initially in the London arising from the increasing interest in Japanese food. Then gradually, non-Japanese sommeliers, bartenders, foodies and drink enthusiasts got into sake as a new flavour to enrich their drink collections.


What is sake made from?

Sake is purely made from rice, water, yeast and an unique ingredient called koji. Koji is a national Japanese fungus or mould which is also used to produce soy sauce, miso, mirin, rice vinegar and shochu (a type of Japanese spirit) and it plays an important role in the conversion of the rice starch into fermentable sugar.

It has no additives (not even sulphides) and it has distinctively low acidity.

The koji enzyme helps to reconstruct skin cells and has a moisturising effect. Because of these health benefits, sake became the drink of many women’s choice in Japan.


guide to sake
Koji being inoculated on steamed rice over two days


What temperature should your sake be?

You can enjoy it in wide range of temperatures from 0 to 55°C and over – every sake has its own individual ideal drinking temperature. The rich and umami-full Junmai category sake of a certain maturity has its flavour enhanced best when warm. For those who don’t know, Umami is a ‘fifth flavour’, only recently appreciated in the West, found in matured meat or parmesan cheese, in sundried tomato and in Japanese cuisine in general. It gives you pleasure when combined with salt.

On the other hand, delicate, light and fragrant Ginjo-style sakes are great chilled and served in wineglasses – their delicacy would disappear if heated.


Pairing with food – both Japanese and Western

Sake and food pairing is a fun and exciting topic to explore. Most of the time people automatically associate the drink only with sushi, but I have been recommending trying it with traditional western dishes.

Cheese and Sake, for example, turn out to be the best of friends due to the high lactic acid content of the alcohol. Popular seafood such as smoked salmon or oysters would go particularly well with sake, with the sake not only cleansing the palate, but also bringing out the umami flavours of the food.



Sake glossary

Here is some useful sake label terms to remember:


Junmai Daiginjo / Daiginjo

The category of sake made by rice being polished down to 50% or less. Non-Junmai sake has a tiny hint of distilled alcohol added to enhance aromas.

Its highly aromatic, refined and elegant style is fruity – with flavours such as  melon, green apples, pears, bananas and aniseed.

Junmai Daiginjo tends to be expensive as more rice is used in its production.


Junmai Ginjo / Ginjo

The category of sake made with rice which has being polished down to 51 – 60%.

(Non-Junmai category has a tiny hint of distilled alcohol added to enhance aromas)

This type also tends to express fresh fruit aromas and delicacy. Great to pair with lighter food.



The category of sake made with rice which has being polished down to 61 – 100% (brown rice).

This type tends to be rounder, richer, fuller with higher levels of umami and acidity. It has a less fruity flavour and more malty, earthy, savoury characteristics thus pairing well with rich food. This can be good served warm.



This category of sake is made with rice which has being polished down to 61 – 70% and with distilled alcohol added to give a dry and crisp finish.

This is a savoury lean, clean and dry style of sake which pairs well with fish dishes although it’s very versatile and goes with a whole range of dishes.



A ‘cloudy’ style with some rice sediments. Textured and creamy, every sake brewery makes Nigori in different styles / category / lee content.


Yamahai / Kimoto

A classic type of sake incorporating the natural lactic acid bacilli in the air, hence the sake develops a higher acidity and depth of flavour. This is great for warming up and pairing with rich meat dishes.


Koshu !!!!!

Most sakes are consumed when young and fresh however there is one category, koshu, which is unique in being aged for a certain length of time (normally more than three years). With time the colour develops into yellow, golden, amber and tawny hues while the flavours oxidise to become a little like Oloroso sherry.


Ultra premium sake is pressed by simple gravity pressure, then stored in this Tobin jar for resting and sedimentation.
Ultra premium sake is pressed by simple gravity pressure, then stored in this Tobin jar for resting and sedimentation.



Below I give a refreshing, pre-dinner cocktail. 


Follow this link for a briefing on sherry.



Recipe for Asaborake – a refreshing, pre-dinner cocktail


  • 60ml clear sake (clean & light Daiginjo / Ginjo style)
  • 20ml cloudy sake (Nigori, partially filtred sake)
  • 20ml fresh lime juice
  • 15ml sugar syrup (sugar : water = 2 : 1 )
  • 2 slices of cucumber
  • 3 leaves of mint


  1. Put all ingredients in shaker with ice and hard shake. (except for a slice of cucumber for decoration)
  2. Strain in the chilled martini glass, decorate with cucumber.




“Yet, l0athsome though one finds it [people getting drunk], there are situations when a cup of sake is hard to resist. On a moonlit night, a snowy morning, or beneath the flowering cherry trees, it increases all the pleasures of the moment to bring out the sake cups and settle down to talk serenely together over a drink.”

-Kenkō, A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees (written circa 1330)



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