Sake is having a moment in the U.S. We are currently Japan’s largest export market for its traditional rice beverage, sipping nearly 5,000 kiloliters per year. Small wine shops sell unfiltered nigori sake alongside hipster varietal wines. Restaurants like Oberlin in Providence, R.I., Catbird Seat in Nashville, and Banyan in Boston, pair sake by the glass with everything from tacos to Buffalo chicken to red-sauced pasta.
For those of us who had our first sip of sake alongside an “any-three-maki” special at a sushi spot, this might seem odd. What about tradition? Isn’t sake the quintessential pairing with classic Japanese fare like, say, sushi?
Turns out, we’ve been doing it wrong the whole time. If you want to dine in the traditional Japanese fashion, don’t — I repeat, do not — drink sake with sushi.
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“I think the Western public have been trained to group sake with sushi because it is commonly served in establishments here,” Andrew Richardson, sales representative for World Sake Imports, says. Most exported sake is served in Japanese restaurants abroad, of which there are nearly 89,000. But until the mid-1900s, the pairing was unheard of in Japan.
“Traditionally in Japan, sake wasn’t paired with any rice dishes,” Joshua Rolnick, beverage director at Neta in New York, says. “Once the rice dish hit the table, the sake went away.” Instead, Japanese diners opted for beer, fruit wine, or tea while eating sushi. Since Neta is a traditional sushi restaurant, Rolnick avoids pairing sushi with sake when possible, suggesting versatile whites like Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, or light reds like Pinot Noir and Gamay.
Because sake is brewed from rice — yes, brewed; sake production is more similar to brewing beer than winemaking — pairing it with sushi essentially just adds rice on top of rice. This was seen as “too much of a good thing,” according to Rolnick, and would fill the diner up too quickly, defeating the intended purpose of a beverage pairing.
“The idea of pairing [alcohol with meals] is actually fairly new to Japan, just since the 1980s or so,” says Jamie Graves, Japanese beverage portfolio manager for Skurnik Wines. “If people did consider the combination of food and drink, the beverage was basically seen as a palate cleanser, to wipe your palate clean and prepare it for the next bite.” Classically, Japanese diners considered those other beverages to be more cleansing and less filling than sake, allowing them to enjoy more food, which was traditionally the priority of the meal.
Sake’s structure also plays a part. It’s lower in alcohol than most spirits, rarely exceeding 20 percent ABV. However, that also means it’s usually more alcoholic and always less acidic than wine or beer. As a result, it can seem flat or flabby when paired with high-acid vinegar on sushi rice. And, conversely, its flavors can overwhelm particularly delicate fish.
“The chef at a more traditional sushi spot most likely wants to highlight the fish’s taste in the sushi,” Richardson says, adding that the weight and texture of many sakes “will dull the subtle flavor.”
But just as sake lovers are bucking tradition by pairing it with fried chicken and pastas, experts do emphasize that sake with sushi need not be shunned. “There’s a saying in Japan that sake wa ryori o erabenai, loosely, ‘sake isn’t choosy about food,’” Graves says. “That’s to say how generally versatile it is in pairing.”
Because sake has many complex, umami-driven flavors, it can be difficult to select just one option to work with many different bites of sushi. If a sake and sushi lover really wants to stick with the pairing, simpler is better.
“If you’re going with one choice for the meal it should be a clean, dry sake with restrained aromatics,” Graves says. Rolnick agrees, saying that a Junmai or Junmai Ginjo work well for most sushi, since more polished sakes typically have more body.
Taking sake outside its most stereotypical pairing may seem forward-thinking, but we’re really just rediscovering a centuries-old Japanese mindset. In doing so, perhaps we’ll all open our eyes — and our palates — to drinking quality sake in the way that it was meant to be enjoyed: sans sushi.