If you're starting to get into the whole sake thing, you're probably aware of a few old wise tales about sake. Some of them are true, some aren't, and some maybe fall in between. Here are a few myths about sake that you've probably heard.
MYTH: Drinking high-quality sake won't give you a hangover. First, I'll start by saying that sake is an alcoholic drink and like an other alcoholic drink, if you drink it in excess you are at risk of getting a hangover. However, sake does not contain the sulfites or acidity of wine. Nor does it contain the harsher chemicals present in other beverages. Because of this, sake is not as much of a hangover-inducing agent as other drinks. I can say from personal experience that I have never had a hangover from sake, IF all I drank the night before was sake. I have had incredible head-pounding hangovers the next morning from drinking a combination of sake, beer, vodka drinks and other stuff. The worst I have ever felt after consuming large amounts of medium to good grade sake was feeling tired the next morning. I have heard from other friends that they did get hangovers from sake. So maybe it's just me. But the bottom line is don't assume sake, even high-quality sake, won't give you a hangover. If you drink enough of it or maybe have a couple of beers along the way, you probably will get a hangover.
MYTH: You should drink sake in shots. Sake is meant to be sipped, not shot. When I had my first drink of sake, I didn't know what I was doing. I was with a bunch of friends who also didn't know what they were doing. Actually, what we were doing was having fun taking sake bombs (sake cup dropped in a beer glass and tanked) so I guess we naturally figured that the proper way to drink sake was fast and aggressive the way we drank our sake bombs. Shooting sake can still be fun but if you're just messing around. But when you do that you miss out on the highly refined flavor of good sake. Save the shots for tequila or other hard stuff. But when it comes to sake, drink it slow and enjoy it like you would a fine wine.
MYTH: If the sake is served hot, it is junk sake. Back in the old days, most of the sake you could get in the US was of lower quality than what you can get today. And even if it was good sake, it could turn bad if it was old or not kept in cool dark conditions. Good sake-turned-bad and plain old junk sake has a harsh taste. Heating it up takes some of the edge of the harshness. But today, there are some high quality sakes that are meant to be served warm, or at least have gained a reputation as being a good warm sake. Some bottles of Kokuryu come to mind. Sake brewers can design the flavor profile to be better warm than chilled. So it's not necessarily true that warm sake is junk sake. But if you are drinking junk sake, it probably tastes better warm than chilled.
MYTH: You have to buy an expensive bottle to get good sake. The old saying, "You get what you pay for" is sometimes true with sake. But it is not always true. Just like with wine, you can get a good bottle of sake at a reasonable price. And what someone else thinks is junk sake, you might find good and vice versa. I find that the sweet spot for sake I like is between $22-$32 per bottle. I have had countless good sake in that price range. I have even have had some good ones in the $15 range. Trader Joe's has one in the $10 range. It's not great, but it is far from bad either. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I have had some outstanding sakes in the $80-$100/bottle price range. But I also had some underwhelming sakes that cost $90/bottle. One final note about this. This is for sake in the US. I have had had $9 bottles of sake in Japan that taste like $50 bottles in the US. In fact, I bought one a 900 yen bottle in the basement of a Japanese department store figuring that it would be decent cheap sake. When we drank it, we were blown away by how good it was. So in Japan, you can get good sake for cheap, very cheap.
MYTH: Sake is like wine and gets better as it ages. This is not true. While there are some aged sake available on the market, most bottles that you buy taste better within 12 months of when it is made. When I buy sake, I look for the "Born On Date" on the front or back label of the bottle. If you see something like 17.02.15 that means it was make or bottled on February 15, 2017. The first number represents the year, the second is the month, and the third is the date. I rarely buy anything over a year old and go out of my way to buy stuff that is 6-7 months or newer. Sake that is older than a year can still taste very good if it was stored in a dark cold place like in a box in a refrigerator. But if it was stored outside exposed to light, it will probably be bad within a year. Even if you buy a bottle of sake from the refrigerated section of a store, you don't know if the bottle was kept cold and dark while it was being stored in the back of the store or at the distributor's warehouse. So to minimize the change of buying a degraded bottle of sake, I try to pick a bottle with as recent a Born-On-Date as possible and generally avoid anything old.
So those are a few of the most common myths or misconceptions about sake. There are others that we will be discussing in a future blog post.