We all know that as soon as you make alcohol bubbly and put it in a cute bottle, people will drink it and probably celebrate something while they’re at it. That’s the case with sparkling sake.
Yep, you read that right, sparkling sake. Or, as many people like to call it, Japanese Champagne.
Up until recently, sake had proven difficult to market in the west. Maybe you’ve even found yourself avoiding nihonshu (regular sake), too, blowing it off as something too strong or a novelty that you choke down with friends at a Japanese restaurant.
Well, sparkling sake is here to change that. It’s so different from nihonshu that it may as well be considered a separate beverage.
Let’s take a look at sparkling sake and why you should be enjoying it like so many others.
What is sparkling sake?
Sparkling sake is simply any bubbly sake.
The two main ways this carbonation is achieved are natural fermentation and forced carbonation with CO2.
Sparkling sake is known to be much easier to drink than regular sake, or nihonshu. No wonder many people who don’t even like nihonshu end up enjoying sparkling sake!.
It made its way onto the sake scene in the early 2000s, probably regular sake wasn’t very popular among young people. Like most young people around the world, they were interested in drinking what was considered trendy.
However, the last decade has seen an explosion of sake popularity around the world, thanks to better marketing efforts and premium offerings — Dassai is an excellent example of a company that reinvented itself for a changing market. They are now one of the best-selling and most recognized sake brands around the world.
Sparkling sake popularity has also exploded in the last few years thanks to better marketing and people realizing it’s easy, so much easier to drink than regular sake while maintaining a unique sake flavor.
Sparkling or Carbonated Sake Features
Is sparkling sake popular?
Sparkling sake has been around for years, but up until recently, not many breweries were producing it.
This changed leading up to (what should have been) the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Japan started to market sparkling sake as “Japanese champagne” in an effort to offer a celebratory drink with a uniquely Japanese flavor. Since then, many breweries have released different interpretations and even invented new ways of carbonating nihonshu, or regular sake.
Probably thanks to those marketing efforts, people started appreciating sparkling sake as an easy summer drink. Even enthusiastic nihonshu drinkers would be tempted to reach for a beer on a hot day. Sparkling sake is as refreshing, if not more, than a cold beer. Not to mention the same alcohol level!
How is sparkling sake made?
It’s worth clarifying that EVERY type of sake contains gas during production.
As the yeast consumes sugars, it releases two byproducts: ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is simply allowed to escape when making nihonshu and trapped when making sparkling sake.
We saw earlier that there are two methods of carbonation: natural and forced. As an ex-brewer, let me tell you that natural is always better, but unfortunately not as practical. Natural carbonation creates smaller bubbles that make for a smoother, somewhat “softer” body.
Naturally-carbonated beers, for example, always have a better body and a thicker head with better retention.
When making sparkling sake, you lock the tank under pressure to trap the carbon dioxide. With nowhere to go, it naturally dissolves into the liquid and creates a bubbly drink.
Some brewers do things slightly differently and add an active yeast, called kassei nigori, during bottling. The sake continues to ferment slightly and carbonate itself in the bottle. Very similar to how sparkling wine and Champagne are made. The only downside of this method is that the drink can continue to ferment too much in the bottle and eventually explode.
While nihonshu has an alcohol percentage of around 15%, sparkling sake starts as low as 4.5%—the same as beer.
However, some sparkling sake can be as strong as nihonshu. Don’t be fooled though, even 4.5% sparkling sake doesn’t go down like a beer. If you’re not used to it, a small bottle may last you a whole night!
Sparkling Sake Flavor & How To Enjoy
Most sparkling sake will have a sweet flavor profile because of its low alcohol content.
Generally, the higher the alcohol content, the sharper and “dryer” the flavor profile. A popular low-alcohol, dry variety is Mio sparkling sake —which tastes light and fruity, akin to Japanese pear.
Just like nihonshu, you’ll find sparkling sake in filtered and coarse-filtered versions.
Coarsely-filtered sake is simply sake with the large particles filtered out but allowing for smaller rice and yeast particles to pass through. This milky-colored sake is known as nigori. It tastes smooth and somewhat creamy thanks to the rice sediment.
But let me tell you that even nigori that isn’t explicitly labeled as sparkling can be slightly carbonated as the rice and yeast sediment continue to ferment in the bottle after packaging.
On the other hand, filtered sake is clear in color. The flavor is often sharper or even slightly sour as all the rice sediment—which contributes starch—has been removed. But, it often makes for a lighter and more refreshing choice, with fewer carbs!
There are different styles of sparkling sake, from sweet with large bubbles to dry and crisp with tight bubbles, somewhat like a Brut.
Is sparkling sake easy to find? Where do I buy it?
In most cases, you’ll find sparkling sake anywhere you can find other decent sake. Most liquor and specialty stores will carry at least one option.
As we’ve seen, a popular and easy-to-find option is Sho Chiku Bai Shirakabeguta Mio or just Mio for short. You’ll find it in an attractive, eye-catching blue bottle, and its flavor can be described as slightly fruity with a touch of sourness. Its low alcohol content makes it a hit among sake novices.
If you’re looking for a sparkling sake that utilizes natural bottle carbonation, Suzune is for you. Having been around since 1998, it’s one of the pioneers of sparkling sake. It’s available in a range of bright colors—with no artificial additives—so it’s a fun choice for special occasions.
MIO uses artificial carbonation, while Suzune uses the same fermentation method as Champagne to create fine bubbles.
Suppose you’re keen to try a higher alcohol sparkling sake. In that case, you should try Dassai sparkling nigori 50, which has an ABV of 16% and a more traditional, umami flavor profile, due to it being nigori. This cloudy sake often has a little natural fizz from rice sediment.
Mio / 澪
Brewery: Takara Sake Brewery
A hit among women in Japan. With an alcohol percentage as low as 5 %, it still gives distinct flavors of sake that are balanced with moderate acidity and sweetness. Great for beginners of sake.
Origin: Osaki City, Miyagi Prefecture
Brewery: Ichinokura Sake Brewery
A soft, bottle-conditioned sparkling Sake that is also undeniably popular among women. Suzune is so easy-drinking that even non-sake drinkers end up hooked! Suzune is a delicate sake that’s easily damaged by temperature and light, so make sure you always keep it in the fridge.
Dassai Happou Nigori-Shu 50 / 獺祭 発泡にごり酒50
Origin: Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Brewery: Asahi Sake Brewery
Probably the most famous Sake brand around the world. Dassai reinvented itself many years ago and now offers the most premium sake in the world. As the number in the name suggests, the rice is polished to 50%, and it’s also bottle-conditioned (i.e., carbonated in the bottle by yeast that consumes residual sugar). This makes for more delicate bubbles and an excellent mouthfeel. It’s a cloudy (nigori) offering meaning it has a somewhat creamier body with slight umami notes from the sediment.
Nene / ねね
Origin: Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Brewery: Sakai Sake Brewery
With a low alcohol percentage of 5% and fruity notes like pear and stone fruit, it will make you question whether you’re even drinking sake. Nene is bottle-conditioned, giving it gentle carbonation similar to a dessert wine. It goes well with dried fruit and desserts.
Bon (Born) Premium Sparkling / 梵 プレミアムスパーリング
Origin: Sabae City, Fukui Prefecture
Brewery: Katou Kichibee Shouten
A superb Champagne-like sake. 80% of the rice is polished, meaning only 20% of the grain remains for production. This makes for an incredibly smooth and easy-drinking final product. Bon is bottle-conditioned and aged for ten months at -8 degrees before being shipped. It has a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity and a slight richness that pairs well with cheese. It’s pretty expensive so it would make a good gift.