Navigating a sake list can feel intimidating to say the least. And to make matters worse, no two sake lists seem to be organized the same way. Where to start? Below, five tips for ordering sake like a pro.
1) Learn the basics
One of the easiest ways to gain the skills for ordering sake with confidence is to learn the fundamentals, which means understanding sake classification. Sake categories provide clues as to what to expect from a bottle.
A word on pronunciation. For English speakers, Japanese is generally easier to pronounce than some other languages since the basic sounds of the Japanese language already exist in English. A key tip is to remember that there are no silent letters in Japanese. Just break down the sake name into syllables.
2) Understanding menus
One of the major challenges for consumers in ordering sake is that sake menus seem to be arranged in different ways. Here are some of the main menu styles that restaurants use:
Lists ordered by taste profile: For quick and painless sake ordering, this organization method is the most practical and luckily, it is a menu style that is becoming more popular. This sake list layout divides sakes by taste impression such as "dry and clean" or "robust and earthy." Just look for an appealing style and price point.
Lists ordered by sake classifications: The most common way to set up a menu and one that breaks down the sake list by the standard classification system. Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo and so on. For those who understand the sake classification system, this menu can be useful, but having tasting notes for each sake along with the classification is the most helpful.
Lists ordered by region: A sake menu ordered by production region is perhaps the least useful of all the menu styles out there. Unless you’ve done some serious sake studying, it is a challenge for most of us to know, for example, the differences between Hyogo, Kyoto or Niigata prefecture sakes. Luckily, this menu style is the least common.
3) Size matters
When examining the sake menu, pay attention to serving size. And if the amount isn't listed, make sure to ask. A glass pour of sake is usually around 4 ounces. Also note, ordering sake by the glass is almost always the most expensive. Although when beginning to drink sake, it is a lower risk way to sample a wide variety. Carafes are often the wild card when ordering. They can range from 5 to 10 ounces, so be sure to ask about the carafe size. Nonetheless, when drinking in a group, carafes are a fun way to try a variety of sakes. When it comes to bottles, most sakes come in a 720 milliliter (24 ounce) bottle, which will serve six people a 4 ounce pour, or will serve a table of four with a slightly larger 6 ounce pour. Ordering by the bottle is the best value.
4) AAsk questions
Ultimately, the sake list is just a springboard for talking with service staff at the restaurant. They want to help. With that in mind, a server or sake sommelier can be a treasure trove of information.
Ask to speak to the sake sommelier: Upscale Japanese restaurants often have a sake sommelier on staff who can help guide sake selections. Don’t miss the opportunity to discuss their list and seek recommendations. Most sake sommeliers take on that title because they are passionate about sake and enjoy helping customers find new and exciting bottles. So communication is a great way to learn about sakes.
Ask for recommendations: If a restaurant does not have a sake sommelier, don’t shy away from asking a server for recommendations. Most experienced servers know their sake lists well and sincerely want to help direct customers to great bottles or carafes. However, keep in mind that servers are salespeople, too. If a server steers you to the most expensive bottle of daiginjo right out the gate, that is always a red flag.
Ask for a taste: Not all restaurants offer sake tastes, but many some do. If a server offers to pour a taste or the diner asks politely, this is one of the best ways to learn about the sake menu and make the best ordering decision. It is most common for staff to volunteer a taste of sake from the given restaurant's by-the-glass menu as these bottles are usually already open.
5) Take notes
After finding an enjoyable sake, make a note of the name or brand. Or, snap a photo of the bottle. There are apps to help with this, too. It is a great feeling to recognize a bottle for the first time. That’s when you really start ordering sake like a pro.