You’ll often hear that there are two types of people: those who love sake, and those who have never tried sake. Those of us in the first category know that sake is always a good time. It’s easy to enjoy, it’s exciting and different, it’s a crowd-pleaser.
Yet when it comes to bringing it home, we’re at a loss. We’re used to seeing the popular beverage at our favorite sushi spots, but it looks intimidating on the shelf. We stare at the tiny bottles of refracting light, and our heads fill with questions.
How long does sake last once open? How should we store it? Although there can be different determining factors, the general rule is to refrigerate your sake and drink it within a couple of months. Sounds easy enough, right?
The uncertainty surrounding sake may cause some to hesitate or shirk away from the popular rice beverage. Clueless, we relegate sake to the occasional date night or special occasion. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Enjoying sake in the comfort of your own home lends that “Night Out” feeling without the hefty price tag. Sake can be a chance to show off your hospitality and get the party started or impress a date with your willingness to try new things.
What is sake?
Sake is easy to enjoy at home. But to get the most out of your sake, it helps to understand what it is.
Sake (pronounced sah-KAY) is Japan’s national beverage and is often served with special ceremony in small porcelain bottles and cups. You may have seen a similar scene in any Japanese restaurant and thought, “Oh, that looks fun!”
And it’s true. There’s a certain intimacy that comes from sharing a bottle of sake, making it perfect for a first-date icebreaker or a toast among old friends.
The most popular kind of sake is Junmai or Dry sake. These will taste crisp and clean and are usually colorless. These more common types of sake often have subtle notes of pear or apple and are pretty “easy drinking.”
Junmai sake and Dry sake both can be served chilled or warm. If you’re stumped as to which to choose, the general rule of thumb is to drink more expensive sake chilled. The cold temperature will bring out the complex flavor profile.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nigori. Nigori sake is cloudy in color and generally very sweet. This is often served chilled as a dessert wine, so keep that in mind at the store. Generally, we’re going to stick to the dry sake we previously mentioned.
To chill or not to chill – are you getting the most out of your sake?
There’s nothing like that first sip of chilled sake on a hot day, but I’m a big fan of hot sake strictly for its prevalence on happy hour menus. There’s just something about it that makes me all warm and fuzzy inside; it could be the fact that sake cups are purposefully small in order to encourage interaction with one another. The idea is never to let your friend’s cup run dry. Cute, right?
And if you want to get traditional when you’re at happy hour, make sure to always fill your friend’s cup before your own. The sentiment behind the action opens the whole table to a good time.
While I would argue the sentiment really spurns the conversation, others might say that the alcohol content has something to do with it. Your typical beer has an alcohol content of roughly 5%. Wine can range anywhere from 8% to 14%. Sake comes in at a whopping 15%.
Although sake’s high alcohol content categorizes it as a fermented rice “wine,” the genetic makeup of sake is more similar to beer. On the one hand, wine is made by fermenting the sugar naturally found in fruits. On the other, sake is made by fermenting the sugar converted from starch in the rice, which is more like a brewing process.
And while wine gets better with age, sake is best consumed within a year from the bottling date printed on the label. Sake has more alcohol than wine or beer, so keep that in mind when filling your friend’s cup.
When it comes to size, sake servings are pretty standard. Sake cups are smaller to reflect higher alcohol content in addition to encouraging interaction. At restaurants, a single serving hot sake is usually served in a 4 oz bottle along with a sake cup, while the 8 oz bottle is the perfect size to share between two people. At the store, you can find sake bottles in three sizes. Fun fact: a “go” is a unit of measurement commonly used for sake. “Go” is also a term used for measuring rice. Some old rice cookers are even labeled with that measurement.
“One-go” is the personal sake at 180 ml. These are the little clear containers with a plastic or peel-off lid at sushi restaurants, a single-serving essentially. But where’s the fun in that? If you’re looking to make friends, the next size is “two-go” at 360 ml, and the next is –surprise!– “four-go” which is 720 ml. For comparison, a “four-go” is about the size of a fifth of Jack.
Sake is generally packaged in glass or plastic bottles with a twist-off lid. Sake doesn’t need a cork, but it does begin to oxidize once opened. It helps to have a bottle that has a dark tint, like green or brown glass.
I got a chance to talk to Michael Winterbottom, a certified sommelier and WSET Level 3 in sake. Michael told me that since there are no sulfites added to sake, it’s completely natural alcohol. That means sake doesn’t spoil! Although that’s good news for us, there are some ground rules to getting the most out of your sake.
Enjoying sake at home
Unopened, a bottle of sake lasts a year from the date printed on the bottle.
All sake, opened or not, is extremely sensitive to heat and light. Keep away from sunlight and opt for bottles with a darker tint. If the sake is stored at room temperature, the quality will degrade quickly in terms of aroma and freshness.
Once opened, a bottle of sake should be refrigerated and consumed within a week for optimum freshness. No harm if you don’t manage to drink it up by then, though! Michael assured me it will still be good for up to two months.
Sake doesn’t technically spoil, so if you’re questioning an expiration date, just heat it up and it’s hot sake happy hour!
Sake is more than a drink – it’s an experience
Once you realize how accessible sake is, it’s a game-changer. I recall a party I went to ten years ago. The party was way out of my league; everyone was older and cooler. The friend that invited me was the only person I knew and we were loitering awkwardly around the kitchen island, not talking to anyone.
Then, someone started passing around tiny cups the size of shot glasses, brimming with warm, fragrant liquid. Even the passing of the cups was enough to get everyone talking and laughing. By the time everyone had a sake cup, it was a completely different room. Between the cheers-ing and the spilling, the laughing, and of course the alcohol, we had taken part in something together and everybody had the warm fuzzies. I remember saying to my friend in awe, “I can’t believe they have sake at this party!”
And my friend, the ultimate cool girl, pointed over to the stove where the sake was being warmed on low. “Look how easy it is!” Although I have a feeling she says that about a lot of stuff in life, at least her view on sake holds up.
Look how easy it is!
So branch out and grab some sake next time you’re at the store. Remember to keep your sake in a cool place. Also remember to always, always, keep your friend’s cup overflowing.
Frequently Asked Questions on How Long Does Sake Last Once Opened
What’s a good first sake to try?
If you have never tried sake before, you’re probably going to want something more mild. Luckily, the most popular sake is dry sake, so it’s pretty easy to find. Anything labeled “dry” or “junmai” will be crisp and clean, with subtle floral notes or hints of fruit.
Should I serve sake chilled or hot?
That’s entirely up to you! For chilled sake, take it out of the fridge right before serving. For hot sake, you can either microwave the sake in a mug for 25 seconds or heat it on the stove on low.
I have a bottle of sake from six months ago. Can I still drink it?
Sake doesn’t go bad, so technically, yes. But if sake is not stored correctly, it may turn yellow and lose its original taste and smell. If you’re questioning the expiration date though, just heat it on the stove.