Sake sommelier Yasuyuki Suzuki shares his tips on how to order the Japanese beverage.

By Melissa Locker
December 05, 2015
Order Sake Tips
Credit: Getty Images/Glowimages

Whether you’re traveling in Tokyo or out for Japanese food, it can be hard to navigate a sake menu. Sake choices range from clear to cloudy, hot to cold, low-priced to very expensive and it is easy to get confused. We spoke to Yasuyuki Suzuki, the sake sommelier at Sushi Seki, (say that five times fast!) for some tips on how to order sake like a pro. If you’re in need of further instruction, head to Sushi Seki’s new location in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City to see Suzuki in action.

Let the sake sommelier be your guide.

Many upscale Japanese restaurants have a sake sommelier on staff to help guide newcomers (and old hands) in their selections. If the restaurant has a sommelier, don’t be shy about asking them for recommendations. “I want to open the door to sake for you. I want to make you a fan,” said Suzuki, who studied for years to earn his credentials and is truly passionate about his work. “Tell your server what you like, even if that’s beer or wine. If you drink Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, that information can be a good trigger for your server.”

Learn the basics.

Learning the rudimentary sake classifications can help you begin to navigate the bottles featured on a menu. “There’s the most expensive group, Junmai Daiginjo, the second most expensive group, Junmai Ginjo, and the less expensive group, Junmai,” said Suzuki, who explained that the classifications are determined by rice grain size and degree of polishing of the individual grains (not that you need to know that to order). Don’t be shy about ordering less expensive bottles, since taste is a personal preference.

While most sake is clear, cloudy or nigori sake is also popular in the United States. “Sake has sediment that gives it a white, milky color, which is the sediment from the sake rice,” said Suzuki. “When sake culture was adapted in the U.S., the first company had an unfiltered, white sake served in a blue bottle. People remembered that and asked for the white sake.” Ironically, according to Suzuki, in Japan most people aren’t familiar with nigori sake at all, and only a handful of people drink it there.

Order temperature seasonally

According to Suzuki, sake tends to be served at varying temperatures depending on the season, with warm or room temperature sake popular in the winter and cooler sake more common in summer. “Servers will know the best temperature to serve your sake,” said Suzuki. “If it’s December, we will serve you hot sake. If it’s summertime, we’ll serve the opposite.” That said, generally higher priced sake is best served slightly chilled.

Be open-minded.

“A very common mistake on the consumer’s side is to not allow the restaurants’ servers to tell you what they recommend,” said Suzuki. Just because you’ve only had sake from one producer or at one temperature doesn’t mean you won’t like something else. “Many restaurants are more sophisticated and educated about their sake selection now,” said Suzuki.

Savor your sake.

“Before you drink anything, see the sake, enjoy the aroma,” said Suzuki. “Don’t drink sake as a shot. You don’t do that with wine; same thing with sake. Take your time, allow your palate to enjoy the whole flavor.”

Similarly, if you sip your sake, you’ll be less likely to get a headache from overdrinking. “No matter what you drink, it’s about the total amount of consumption. You can get a headache from any kind of beverage,” said Suzuki.

Don’t pour your own sake (unless you want to).

“Guests never pour the sake for themselves,” said Suzuki, but admits that he will pour his own when enjoying a glass by himself after work. This just shows that drinking sake doesn’t require rigid adherence to rules, just relax and enjoy.

Don’t be intimidated.

Sake at its most basic is simply alcohol made from fermented rice and three other ingredients: water, yeast, and koji, a fungus used to kickstart the fermentation process. “Sake is basically a clear liquid,” said Suzuki. Hard to be intimidated by that!

Pair sake with food other than sushi.

“Cheeses like Parmesan or ricotta can be really good paired with sake, especially if the sake is properly aged,” said Suzuki.

Not a sake fan?

Sushi Seki’s beverage director Rick Zouad recommends trying sherry with your sushi. “Sherry has a high level of acidity. It’s super clean and very earthy with just a touch of oak that can cut through the oiliness of the fish,” said Zouad. Other options include red or white wine or, as Suzuki suggests, trying a plum sake served as a highball with soda.