Those who have never tasted Sake before, such as most non-Japanese, are unsure of its shelf life or the signs of spoilage.
Since you bought that sake bottle a while ago, it is time for you to sit down and enjoy it. The label does not mention a best-by date, so the thought, “Does sake go bad?” immediately crosses your mind.
With this comprehensive guide, you’ll find storage information, the types of Sake available, the best grade for Sake, its spoilage indicators, and more. Interested? Continue reading.
What is Sake?
In Japan, Sake (pronounced “sah-keh”) is an alcoholic drink, often referred to as “rice wine” for the same reasons as wine: it is characterized by unique flavor profiles and fruity aromas. Sake shares similarities with beer as the two share a corresponding brewing method.
However, the sake brewing process is much more complicated and involves what is known as “multiple parallel fermentation,” where starch is converted to sugar and sugar into alcohol concurrently (rather than sequentially, as it occurs in beer).
This beverage is in a class all its own, thanks to its unique brewing process and variations. Learn about Sake’s brief history, its production process, and Japan’s unique geography, which explains why it has such a wide variety of Sake available.
Choosing Sake for beginners
Especially for sake newbies, choosing Sake at a store or placing an order at a restaurant might seem daunting. Perhaps you have no clue what to get or what you should expect. But when picking Sake as your drink of choice, you need to keep two things in mind.
|No Added Alcohol||Some Added Alcohol|
Junmai Daiginjo is an ultra-premium Sake that uses a high percentage of polished rice (at least 50%). It is usually light, aromatic, and flavorful.
Daiginjo is brewed from extremely polished rice (at least 50 percent) infused with alcohol. A pleasant, light beverage with a pleasant aroma.
Junmai Ginjo is a premium- Sake brewed with very highly polished rice (to at least 40%). Fruity, light, refined.
Ginjo is made with very highly polished rice (at least 40 percent) mixed with alcohol. It is light, aromatic, fruity, and refined in flavor.
Junmai is brewed with rice that has been highly polished (to at least 30%).
The main ingredients are rice, water, Koji, plus a touch of pure distilled alcohol for flavoring and aroma extraction. Light, mildly fragrant, and easy to drink.
What types of Sake are there?
The popularity of high-end Sake has been rising in recent decades, with generic Sake trailing behind other types of alcoholic beverages. The quality of premium sake is evident from its ingredients and the meticulous processes involved in its production.
What follows are some of the factors that consumers should be aware of and the jargon that helps them understand:
1 Degree of polishing the rice
Polishing the grains is required during the Sake-making process to prevent the grains’ outer layers from creating unpleasant flavors in the final product.
As a rule of thumb, the more polished the rice, the more flavorful it is, and the more expensive the Sake will be. Sake requires polishing of at least 30 percent of the grain, with some high-end sakes requiring even more polishing:
The consensus is that Ginjo and Daiginjo are the most flavorful varieties of premium sake and have the most decadent flavor. If paired with delicate foods, they can be overwhelming.
Therefore, they are best consumed on their own (e.g., as an aperitif) or with dishes that have a strong flavor profile.
2 Presence of alcohol
As with other alcoholic beverages, Sake’s alcohol is produced through fermentation that undergoes a lengthy and labor-intensive process. As a cost-cutting measure, brewers often add a high percentage of distilled alcohol to their Sake.
In contrast, premium sakes are renowned for not containing any added alcohol or using a limited amount of alcohol to impart subtle flavors.
The result gives rise to the following additional categories of premium sake:
- Junmai (純米) – Sake that has not been infused with alcohol.
- Honjozo (本醸造) – The flavor is enhanced by adding a small amount of alcohol.
You can combine some of these terms; for instance, a “Junmai Ginjo” sake has no added alcohol and is produced from rice grains polished to at least 40%.
Different types of Sake are available
Producers can produce different types of Sake with some unique characteristics by eliminating or changing their production process.
A few common examples include:
1 Namazake (raw Sake)
The process of pasteurization usually takes place at the end of manufacturing. Namazake however, is unpasteurized. As a result, a fresh-tasting drink is created and should be chilled and drunk shortly after opening.
2 Nigorizake (cloudy Sake)
The final step in producing Sake is filtration to create a crystal-clear drink. Nigorizake only undergoes coarse filtering, yielding a cloudy sake with rice particles remaining after fermentation. It tastes pleasantly sweet to tart.
3 Sparkling Sake
A growing number of sake breweries have introduced sparkling Sake as part of their portfolios over the past few years. Much like sparkling wine, saké is bottled before completing the fermentation process, causing bubbles to form.
4 Koshu (Aged Sake)
After its production, most Sake is consumed fairly quickly. However, the Koshu type is aged in bottles or barrels for a longer period to develop distinct flavors. The end product may exhibit more robust, rustic, or earthy tones and a dark honeyed color depending on the aging process.
5 Jizake (local Sake)
Sake is brewed locally by small, independently owned breweries.
6 Amazake (sweet Sake)
Amazake is not actual Sake but rather a sweetened, thickened, low-alcohol, or non-alcoholic winter beverage. Winter festivals often feature various Amazake sold at food stands and street vendors.
What is the best grade for Sake?
The stages involved in sake brewing are vital to its production. The process of rice polishing, in particular, has a significant impact on sake classification and price.
Sake is not classified by its composition of rice, in contrast to wine, which is categorized by grape variety. Different types of Sake are produced depending on the degree of polishing and/or milling of the grain’s outer layers.
The polishing process removes unwanted fats from the grain, leaving nothing but the pure starchy core (seimaibuai). A higher percentage of the outer rice grain polished off, the greater the quality and refinement of the Sake.
Remember to say “Ginjo” in Sake (the super-premium kind), and you’ll get what you want.
The most generic form of Sake is Futsushu(普通種) and is commonly known as “table sake”. Only a minimal amount of polishing has been done to the rice (between 70 and 93 percent), and it is the only stuff we would probably recommend staying away from.
The interesting thing is, you can buy good-quality Sake at an affordable price, so unless you don’t mind a hangover and bland taste, futsu-shu is not for you.
Uses premium rice polished away upwards of 30%. Junmai-shu [純米酒] signifies “unadulterated rice sake,” indicating that it has not been mixed with anything else. Junmai” is a term that means “pure rice.”
In the world of Sake, this term is essential, defining the difference between pure rice sake and non-pure rice sake.
The only ingredients used in Junmai are rice, water, yeast, and koji — no addition of other ingredients, including sugar or alcohol. In Japanese, if a bottle of Sake does not say “Junmai” (written as 純米), the drink will contain brewer’s alcohol and other ingredients.
A super-premium sake (吟醸) made from rice that has been polished to at least 40%. Ginjo uses a special yeast here as well as a unique fermentation process. This makes for a fruity, light, and complex taste, usually quite aromatic.
It’s refreshing and typically served chilled (although not always). Junmai Ginjo simply refers to Ginjo sake following the “pure rice” (no additives) standard.
Belong to the ultra-premium Sake (大吟醸) (hence the “dai,” or “big”) that is considered a symbol of the perfection of Japanese brewing. The process requires precise brewing techniques and rice that has been polished to a minimum of 50%.
Daiginjo sake tends to be expensive and served chilled to showcase its bright, robust flavors and aromas. Junmai Daiginjo is simply Daiginjo Sake that falls under the “pure rice” (no additives) category.
How to store Sake?
You must handle the Sake carefully and store it correctly to keep its integrity if you want it to be as flavorful as possible. Generally, Sake has a long shelf life, but some types can remain at room temperature. Some varieties are delicate and require refrigerator storage.
The following tips describe how to store Sake before and after opening, key things to remember, and expiration dates.
Storage temperatures for various kinds of Sake
Remember that serving and storing temperatures are not the same, for starters. Keeping Sake in the refrigerator allows it to be consumed at room temperature.
The same applies to a Sake that you keep at room temperature, which can be chilled and enjoyed. You can chill it the night before if you wish.
Serving temperature vs. storage temperature
Generally, you can keep Sake at room temperature in a dark spot before opening. A careful approach is necessary for other delicate Sake varieties such as Nama, Ginjo, and Daiginjo.
In Japanese, Nama refers to unpasteurized Sake. Pasteurization (heating up) is often done twice in traditional brewing to prevent fermentation.
In the case of Nama sake, you must refrigerate it right away to maintain its original taste since bacteria lie dormant or hibernate below 40°F.
Daiginjo and Ginjo both benefit from being kept in a fridge. Although some are quite delicate, keeping them at room temperature is not a problem due to pasteurization.
Aromatic notes and pleasantly fruity tastes are affected by higher temperatures. If you live in a climate prone to humidity, you might want to make sure that you keep Daiginjo Sake and Ginjo Sake in the refrigerator.
Different varieties of Sake require varying storage conditions, both before and after opening the bottle.
Precautions to observe for storing Sake
Once you determine the type of Sake you are keeping, you’ll be able to prepare a place for storing it. These conditions will negatively affect Sake:
- UV light: Do not expose Sake directly to sunlight. For best results, LED lighting is preferable to fluorescent light.
- Temperature fluctuation: Whether the area is usually cold, you should expect temperatures to fluctuate near a gas stove or behind the refrigerator. Keep them in a dark, cool place.
- Strong odors: Strong odors can negatively affect certain sake brands and bottles. Foods with a strong scent, such as onions, are likely to affect the taste of the liquor.
Bottom line: Limit exposure to direct sunlight, high temperatures, and strongly scented environments.
What to do after opening a bottle of Sake
How should Sake be stored once opened? As much as possible, you should always store Sake in the refrigerator after opening, regardless of the type.
How long you should store Sake usually varies with each type. A good rule of thumb is that Nama is best consumed within a few hours after opening because of its fragile nature.
However, the expiration date varies from product to product. You can safely store Sake for 3 days to enjoy its maximum freshness, although you can keep some Sake for up to a week.
The Sake may taste too bright, in which case, you can leave it alone for a day or two. Aging quickly often makes sake smoother and tastes better!
A reminder about “expiration dates.”
Typical sake bottles only display the production date (or bottling date). Generally, breweries do not list a stated expiration date for Sake due to its high alcohol content, which helps stabilize it and reduce the rate of deterioration.
However, it should be noted that Nama and other varieties should be consumed sooner rather than later due to their delicate nature. As with anything, it really comes down to the kind of Sake being consumed.
The best time to begin drinking Sake is when you purchase it, as the brewery has deemed it at its optimum level of enjoyment!
The consensus, however, is that by storing and handling Sake properly (in a dark, cool, and smell-free environment), it can be stored unopened for quite some time.
You should keep in mind:
The ideal environment varies depending on the kind of Sake. Storing and handling Sake properly are key to its deliciousness!
Can you let Sake age?
According to traditional Japanese culture, fresh and young Sake is the best. The best time to drink Sake is within about two years of its production, so do not age or store your Sake. Just enjoy it!
Storage should be in a cool, dark place, and owing to its fragile nature; Sake should not be exposed to bright light.
Does Sake go bad?
Sake is less likely to go bad if it is unopened. Long-term storage may affect the quality and might not be as good as once you opened it, but it will still be drinkable.
In the refrigerator, an opened bottle won’t spoil that quickly. The odds are that it will be appropriate to dispose of it based on its quality.
What does bad Sake look like?
- A yellow tint occurs. Generally, Sake is a clear liquid, and its yellowish tint indicates that oxidation has caused substantial alcohol degradation.
- The taste is off. Take a sip to test the flavor. Throw it away if it doesn’t taste right. Perhaps you’ve misinterpreted it for spoiled Sake. But if it doesn’t appeal to you, it’s not worth storing.
- Floating particles. The presence of particles indicates that nihonshu has started disintegrating.
- Pungent or off-smelling odor. When in doubt, dispose of it.
How long does Sake last?
Opening Sake will inevitably cause it to oxidize, but the process will be more gradual than with wine. Sake should be enjoyed within a week after opening, with the best flavor withstand occurring within the first three days.
Cooler temperatures can retard maturation. Therefore, an unopened bottle of Sake is recommended for consumption within one year of bottling and within two years in refrigerated conditions. The process is sped up in the case of Nama (unpasteurized Sake) or warm storage areas.
You can find the production dates on the label. They represent the date of bottling. Most sake bottles don’t need to include a best-by date due to the absence of a requirement in the country of origin.
Contrary to wine, Sake keeps well without aging in nearly all cases. It is best to drink the wine fresh, preferably within one to two years of bottling.
Sake has a longer shelf life, but it loses its quality over time. Basically, the longer it sits, the more it will deteriorate. Unopened Sake sitting in your pantry for five years is probably still good to drink, but the quality may not be up to par.
The quality will fluctuate after opening the bottle. To enjoy the best taste, consume the entire bottle in one sitting. If that’s not possible, you can store it in the refrigerator, which will keep it fresh for a week.
However, it will lose its taste and turn soft over time. Whether the taste changes quickly or slowly depends on the alcohol quality. Many flavors will retain their strength within a week, with others lasting up to a month.
What is cloudy Sake? Why is Nigori cloudy?
Sake with a milky or cloudy appearance is called Nigori, a Japanese spirit and is gaining popularity in the U.S. for its mild sweetness and creamy mouthfeel.
Nigori sake is unfiltered or partially filtered, retaining some rice sediment, thus resulting in a milky or cloudy appearance. If you are interested in trying Sake for the first time, Nigori is a perfect option.