What exactly is sake? Is it a beer? A wine? A spirit?
While it is easy to say what sake is not--it is definitely not a
distilled spirit like vodka or gin--it is a bit harder to say exactly
what sake is. Like beer, sake is made from a starchy grain rather
than a sugary fruit, and so the fermentation process for both beer
and sake starts with the transformation of starch into sugar--a step
not necessary when making wine. However, unlike beer, sake is rarely
carbonated, and certainly the range of flavors and fragrances found
in fine sake is more akin to wine than to beer. In the end it is safe
to say that sake is a unique fermented beverage that shares some of
the best characteristics of both beer and wine.
What is the alcohol content of sake?
Most sake contains 14% to 16% alcohol, in contrast to 4% to 6% for beer and 8% to 14% for wine. Freshly-brewed sake naturally contains as much as 20% alcohol when it is pressed from the mash, but before bottling water is added to bring the alcohol level down to about 15%. Masumi also makes a low-alcohol sake, "Hanamaru", that has an alcohol content of only 8%.
How should the word "sake" be pronounced?
In Japan, this word is pronounced "sah-kay." One could argue that this is the "correct" pronunciation, but of course if you are ordering sake in a country where the word is commonly pronounced "sakee," you may want to say it that way first and argue about phonetics after you have your drink in hand.
Is sake meant to be drunk with food, or alone?
The short answer is: yes to both! Good sake goes very well with a wide range of foods--many say sake is easier to match with food than wine is. Of course, premium ginjo and super premium daiginjo sakes are wonderful sipped chilled any time, and a warm cup of standard sake does well on its own to take the chill out of a winter afternoon.
Does sake improve with age, like wine?
No. Although there are a few special varieties of sake that are "aged" before bottling to produce a darker, more mature flavor, all sake should be drunk as soon after purchase as possible, and within a year of purchase at the very longest. A bottle of sake should be consumed within a few days of being opened.
How should sake be stored?
Sake that has been pasteurized should be kept in a cool, dark place until opening, then refrigerated thereafter. Fresh sake, called namazake in Japanese, is not pasteurized and should always be refrigerated.
At what temperature should sake be served?
That depends on the type of sake (and perhaps on the season in which you drink it). Earthy sakes with fuller flavors and mild aromas are good candidates for warming, whereas fruity, highly fragrant sakes should be drunk chilled. Generally you'll find more good candidates for warming in the Junmai, Honjozo, and Standard sake categories, and more good candidates for chilling in the Ginjo premium and Daiginjo super premium sake categories. Avoid heating sake over 50C (120F), and avoid chilling sake any lower than about 10C (50F).
What kind of glass or cup is appropriate for serving sake?
Japanese people traditionally serve sake in small ceramic, clay, or lacquerware cups, but these days you'll find it served in everything from short glasses to crystal stemware. There are no strict rules, but a good rule of thumb is: select a vessel that fits the type of sake, the temperature, and the setting. For example, earthy sakes with mild aromas are good candidates for warming, and you should serve warm sake in small ceramic or clay cups for obvious reasons. On the other hand, fruity, highly fragrant sakes are best chilled, so glass is a better choice, and stemware may be perfect if you want to fully enjoy this type of sake's subtle and complex nose.
Is drinking sake better for your health than drinking other alcoholic beverages?
Sake contains no sulfites or other preservatives that are said to contribute to hangovers and other health concerns. Naturally, sake should be consumed in moderation and with the same caution as any other alcoholic drink.