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How to Pick a Good Sake

May 14 2020 - Blog

As essential as grapes are to wine-making, the type of sake rice used makes a load of difference to the sake’s texture and taste. While sake labels may not always name the sake rice being used, understanding the characteristics of popular sake rice types can help us make better-informed purchase decisions.

Four Famous Types of Sake Rice

1. Yamada Nishiki Rice (山田錦)

Occasionally called the “king of sake rice”, Yamada Nishiki is one of the most widely used sake rice for premium sake in Japan. Grown in the Hyogo, Fukuoka, Tokushima and Okayama prefectures, you‘ll be impressed by the delicate sake this rice makes. Its taste is full-bodied, well-blended and savoury with a pleasant strong smell.

2. Omachi Rice (雄町)

Grown in the Okayama prefecture, Omachi is the oldest known “pure” sake rice strain free from genetic crossbreeding. Sake brewed from Omachi rice carries a strong distinctive taste that is generally less fragrant, more complex, earthy and diversified with herbal hints.

3. Miyama Nishiki Rice (美山錦)

Predominantly grown in the Nagano, Iwate, Yamagata and Akita prefectures, Miyama Nishiki grows best in cold climates. Unlike the Yamada Nishiki and Omachi rice types, sake made with Miyama Nishiki has a light and subtle taste with a grainy flavour profile, muted aromatics, and is often mildly sweet. If you prefer sake with a sharper flavour profile, then Miyama Nishiki is for you.

4. Gohyakumangoku Rice (五百万石)

A popular variety from Niigata, Gohyakumangoku is the second-most widely used sake rice in Japan. It yields light-bodied sake with a fresh, clean, dry and smooth taste that is slightly fragrant —characteristic of the Niigata sake style.

What Is Rice Polishing Ratio (精米步合)?

In your search for the perfect sake, a common jargon you will run into is rice polishing ratio, also known as seimai buai in Japanese. Rice polishing ratio is a distinguishing indicator of how much rice remains in a sake brew. For instance, a ratio of 70% means that 30% of the rice is polished away and 70% remains.

The outer layer of sake rice is made of proteins, fats and minerals. While these components are treasured in rice consumption, they are less desirable in sake production as they leave a bitter or sour taste in the final sake product. To ensure that the sake brewed is as refined and clean as possible, the outer layers are removed in a process termed polishing.

Premium sake generally has a lower polishing ratio; the higher the percentage of rice polished away, the higher the sake classification level. For example, sake with 60% rice polishing ratio is typically more premium than sake with 70% ratio.

As a rule of thumb, good sake is usually polished to about 50 – 70% where approximately 30 – 50% of the rice is polished away. The lower the ratio, the better the sake.

How to Read a Sake Label

To read sake labels like a pro, here is a list of things you can look out for.

On the front label:

  1. Name of Sake: Commonly displayed on the centre of the front label.
  2. Type of Sake: Classification of sake stated beside the name of sake.
  3. Type of Drink: Both日本酒 and 清酒 translate to sake.
  4. Ingredient: Rice and rice koji. Distilled alcohol is added for non-junmai types.
  5. Production Date: The date when the sake was dispatched from the brewery. 
  6. Name of Sake Brewery and Address: Prefecture is a good indicator of the sake’s taste.

On the back label:

  1. Rice Polishing Ratio (精米步合): The lower the ratio, the cleaner/better the sake.
  2. Sake Meter Value (日本酒度): Measures the dryness of the sake in relation to the amount of sugar. Positive value means dryer sake, whereas negative value means sweeter sake.
  3. Acidity (酸度): The higher the acidity, the dryer the sake.
  4. Alcohol Content (アルコール分): Typically between 13% – 16%. Undiluted sake, also known as genshu, contains around 20% alcohol.
  5. Type of Rice (酒米) Used

Click here for more detailed explanations.

How to Store Sake

The absence of preservatives in sake makes it vulnerable to environment changes. Since it has no expiry date, the shelf life of sake is dependent on the type of sake and whether the bottle has been opened.

When storing unopened sake bottles, always sit them in cool and dark places at room temperature. To prevent the taste and quality from going bad, you may wrap the bottles with newspaper and put them inside the fridge at 5 – 14°C and completely keep away from sunlight, fluorescent light or any sources of heat. If properly stored, unopened sake can safely last about 1 to 2 years. Do note that this period begins from the sake’s production date (listed on the label) and not the date you bought it.

Once opened, always keep your sake tightly sealed in the fridge. Best to consume within 2 to 4 weeks.

Estimated shelf life of sake:

Unopened Sake: 1 – 2 years
Opened Sake: 2 – 4 weeks
Unpasteurized Unopened Sake: 6 months
Unpasteurized Opened Sake: 1 – 2 weeks

Our advice? Enjoy your favourite sake while it’s fresh! Sake degrades with time, so the sooner you consume it, the better the tasting experience.

How to Tell If Sake Has Gone Bad

There are several signs to tell if your sake is safe to drink or should be discarded. Sake is typically clear so if you notice a yellow hue, it could indicate that oxidation has done quite some damage to the sake. Presence of particles either floating or at the bottom of the bottle are also signs that the sake has gone bad. To confirm your suspicion, smell or taste a small amount to check if the aroma or flavour has changed.

Also read: An Introduction to Japanese SakeHealth Benefits of Sake


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