In the worldwide family of alcoholic beverages, sake and wine are more like cousins than siblings. The differences between these two drinks are profound, from their distinct brewing processes down to the best glasses to serve each in.
Both novice to experienced beverage connoisseurs benefit from understanding the differences in language, tasting principles, and terminology between sake and wine — in addition to the few places they overlap.
This guide will help you to understand the nuances between two of today’s most iconic alcoholic drinks, then learn how to best serve and taste sake for yourself.
What Is Sake?
Sake is a popular alcoholic beverage brewed from rice, yeast, water, and a special kind of mold known as koji. The combination of these four ingredients — along with its unique rice-polishing and multiple parallel fermentation brewing technique — transforms sake into its distinctly translucent, umami-forward drink revered around the world.
Overall, there are two primary grades of sake:
- Futsu-shu: Futsu-shu, or basic sake, is the most commonly produced grade, comprising almost two-thirds of all sake on today’s global market. Basic sake is comparable to table wines, meaning it will generally have a milder palate, medium body, soft aftertaste, and little-to-no residual acidity, making it an approachable albeit uncomplicated drink.
- Tokutei Meisho-shu: Tokutei Meisho-shu, or premium sake, is the higher grade of Japanese sake known for its elevated flavors, textures, and deliberate brewing process. Brewers making premium sake must follow a stringent set of brewing guidelines to classify and sell their sake as Tokutei Meisho-shu, including formal regulations across rice types, fermenting mold quality, brewing timelines, and more.
Even more specifically, there are eight grades — or subcategories — of premium sake, each with its own flavor profile.
- Junmai: Medium-bodied, lightly acidic, and displaying Japanese sake’s classic earthy, umami notes.
- Ginjo: Crisp, fruity, and floral with pleasantly stronger aromas compared to other sake grades and best enjoyed chilled.
- Tokubetsu Junmai: A deeper, rounder sake with a substantial body and dry flavor profile.
- Junmai Ginjo: An ideal balance representing sake’s sweet-and-savory palate, with a light body and refreshing acidity.
- Daiginjo: Highly refined to expose a rice kernel’s innermost core, creating a highly fragrant bouquet, delicate earthiness and a soft, sweetened taste.
- Junmai Daiginjo: Light, smooth, creamy, and fruity with a lengthier but subtle finish.
- Honjozo: Off-dry, medium-bodied, earthy and complex, with a more pervasive aftertaste due to the addition of a neutral brewer’s alcohol.
- Tokubetsu Honjozo: Dryer and bolder, yet still carrying its signature medium body blending sweetness with umami.
Sake Versus Wine Comparison: What Are the Similarities and Differences?
Overall, there are several key differences to note between wine and Japanese sake.
Consider the following characteristics to grasp how sake and wine compare — plus how they’re fundamentally different beverages to experience.
1. Brewing Process
Wine and sake each have a distinct brewing process. While the makings of each beverage have been perfected in their respective homelands for thousands of years, its steps, ingredients, and supplies differ, as do the brewing timelines themselves.
Overall, the sake brewing process involves around a dozen key stages and takes between two to three months. The wine-brewing timeline is considerably shorter. Freshly picked grapes can be mashed, fermented, and bottled in as little as 10 to 15 days, with optional wine aging adding another week to a few months until considered complete.
- Ingredients: In winemaking, the only ingredients necessary to produce a liquid legally allowed to be sold as wine are grapes and water. The main ingredients involved in sake brewing are a bit longer though equally as fundamental. Sake is derived from rice, water, yeast, and a specific form of koji mold — nothing else.
- Additives: It’s relatively common for winemakers to add preservatives, sulfites and natural flavors to their bottles. Some even add additional ingredients like powdered tannin and sugar. These additives help preserve a wine bottle’s shelf life and freshness, even after sitting for a year or more in a liquor store. In comparison, the only additional ingredient permitted in sake may be neutral distilled alcohol, present in select types of premium-grade sake such as Tokubetsu Honjozo.
Sake is best when enjoyed young. In other words, sake should not be intentionally aged or preserved for drinking years down the road. While there are exceptions to the rule, this recommendation to drink sake young stems from its unique brewing process, specifically:
- Sake has no preservatives: No added chemical or natural preservatives makes sake more susceptible to heat, cold, sunlight, and oxidation. All types and grades of sake should be subsequently stored in a dark, temperature-stable environment without frequent changes in moisture or light.
- Sake should be enjoyed within one year: Sake’s one-year shelf life is a good rule of thumb ensuring the quality of a bottle’s flavors, textures, and aromas.
- Opened sake lasts a maximum of one week: Unfinished bottles of sake should be stored in the refrigerator and finished within a week of opening.
On the other hand, wine is well-revered for its aging properties. Particular types of red wine even require aging and decanting before serving to experience their full palate and soften their sharp tannins. Sake, with its innately delicate flavor profile, does not require decanting, or letting the beverage “breathe” before drinking.
3. Tasting Profile
Overall, wine and sake carry distinct flavors and aromas which present a completely different tasting experience. Drinkers should note the following major differences between these two types of alcoholic beverages:
- Acidity: The vast majority of wine — red, white, and rose varietals — maintains acidity levels higher than sake, fundamentally shaping a wine’s mouthfeel and body.
- Aftertaste: Sake tends to leave a faint — if any — aftertaste on the tongue. In fact, this lightness is considered desirable and a marker of a high-quality sake compared to brews that linger. On the other hand, many red and white wines are lauded for long finishes. However, it is not a marker of poor quality if wine doesn’t have a marked aftertaste and will be judged foremost by the wine’s varietal.
- Sweet versus savory: Wine maintains a discernibly sweeter profile compared to most types of sake due to its grape base. However, wine drinkers know that not all wines taste “sweet” in the traditional sense. Sake, in comparison, carries a lighter but more savory-leaning palate reminiscent of its rice mash base.
Both wine and sake harbor massively different tasting sub-categories, though. For example, classic Junmai-style sake will be fuller and more umami-forward than the lighter, floral Junmai Ginjo-style of Japanese sake.
Consider these other essential tasting profile differences between sake and wine:
- Wine: The soil type, climate, topography, and grapevine maturity all play critical factors in a bottle’s finale profile.
- Sake: Rice-polishing ratio, water quality, and yeast starters are considered the most critical factors influencing sake’s taste alongside its unique multiple parallel fermentation process.
Umami refers to the savory flavors detected by your tongue when eating or drinking certain foods. Triggered by the presence of an amino acid called glutamic acid, umami is considered one of the five primary tastes differentiated by the human tongue alongside sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. The higher its glutamic acid levels, the more “umami-forward” dishes or beverages will taste.
Umami is an essential tasting note of sake — but is rarely used to describe wine. Common umami-driven flavors found in sake include:
- Baker’s yeast
Note that different grades and styles of sake will display varying umami amounts. In general, the less rice is polished — around 70 to 100% rice-polishing ratios — the more umami-forward sake will be. Higher rice-polishing ratios, like those that characterize Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo result in fruitier, more floral, and lighter flavors, though still contain the presence of those signature umami notes. Serving Japanese sake cold versus warmed may also affect its umami presentation.
5. Alcohol Content
The average bottle of sake contains an alcohol by volume (ABV) level between 13 and 16%.
Comparatively, the average bottle of wine will have an ABV around 12%.
This makes sake hold the highest-natural ABV levels of non-hard liquor alcohol, considerably higher than beer and relatively higher than wine’s alcohol content.
Sake enjoys its higher-ABV status thanks to its multiple parallel fermentation brewing process, where starches break down into sugar (saccharification) and ferment simultaneously. When brewing beer and wine, saccharification and fermentation occur separately, limiting the production of alcohol.
Sake’s versus wine’s calorie counts is another notable difference between these two popular beverages. Drinkers watching their caloric intake are often interested in which drink contains fewer calories — but more importantly, why:
- A serving of white wine averages 159 calories.
- A serving of red wine averages 125 calories.
- A serving of sake averages 156 calories.
Knowing the calories of these popular alcoholic beverages doesn’t provide the full picture, though. This is because wine and sake have different serving sizes, or the proper amounts poured into a glass before enjoying.
- Given its higher ABV, experts recommend sake serving amounts of 4 to 6 fl oz.
- To compare, a typical serving of wine will be between 5 to 6 fl oz., with most bottles of wine containing just over 750 ml, or five perfect 5 fl oz. servings.
- Both beverages should be sipped, not slammed, regardless of the actual serving portion.
- Sake’s higher ABV concentration encourages slower drinking, since the alcohol will be absorbed more potently in the bloodstream if consumed too quickly.
7. Tasting and Serving Process
Sake carries a distinct serving philosophy built across generations of tradition. This makes properly serving sake an art form in itself — and a new experience for anyone used to the uncork-and-pour method of drinking most wines.
The basic steps to drink and serve sake include the following:
- Glassware: Sake is traditionally served in a ceramic serving glass known as a tokkuri. Sake is transferred from its glass bottle to the tokkuri, then poured into smaller individual serving glasses called ochokos. Drinkers cup their ochoko with two hands and take small sips of their beverage, re-filling their glasses as they desire.
- Temperature: Sake can be served hot or cold depending on the type of sake as well as the season. Given its innate delicacy and flavor finesse, cold sake should be kept at a minimum of 50°F and warmed a maximum of 120°F. Temperatures over or under these will dull sake’s subtler palate and muddle the entire drinking experience.
- Tasting: The shape and size of ochokos prevents sake from being swirled prior to sipping. Unlike wine, though, sake does not require such oxidation, or methods allowing the wine to “breathe” to coax its full flavors and aromas. Similar to wine, sake is meant to be sipped and enjoyed slowly. Refill your ochoko as you drink. Due to its size, an authentic ochoko will only hold between 3 to 5 fl. oz. of liquid at a time, helping ensure a deliberate tasting.
- Storage: All unopened sake should be stored in a cool, dry, and dim place. Unlike wine, though, sake does not need to remain in a dedicated temperature-controlled room. Keep all opened sake bottles in the refrigerator, drinking within a few days to maintain its optimal taste and aromas.
8. Food Pairings
Both wine and sake are notably great beverages to pair with foods. Given their unique flavor profiles, aromas, and aftertaste strengths though, the two drinks cannot necessarily be swapped with each other and still be expected to bring out the same complementary dining experience.
Wine and sake tend to favor different styles of composed dishes as well as different proteins and produce. Consider these ideal sake food pairings, directed by its presence of umami versus its sweetness:
- Umami-forward sake pairings: Umami-heavier styles of like Honjozo and Junmai are the go-to choice for salty snacks, fried dishes and bolder, spicier cuisine. Pair umami-heavy Japanese sake with foods like fried chicken, mild curries, pad thai, tonkatsu, spare ribs, Szechuan fare, and charcuterie platters with rich cheeses, sausages and pickled vegetables.
- More delicate sake food pairings: White-fleshed fish, lobster, shrimp, scallops, and prawns, as well as classic Japanese fare such as sushi and sashimi, pair well with lighter, sweeter sake, as do spring rolls, salads, American barbecue, teriyaki, and other oily fish and poultry dishes.
A true food-and-beverage pairing connoisseur will have fun mixing and matching sake with meals, seeing what flavors complement one another and which could be better expressed when served on its own.
Cooking With Sake Versus Wine
Both sake and wine can be used for cooking. In fact, wine and sake can actually be interchanged relatively easily when cooking, as long as you account for sake’s higher ABV. Its concentrated alcohol means cooking with sake may require longer reduction periods for sauces, stews and glazes made on stovetops, simmering off excess alcohol while still preserving its flavors.
Sake makes an excellent ingredient across any of the following recipes or food preparation steps, including:
- To marinade and tenderize meat
- To steam mussels, clams and other shellfish
- To de-glaze pans
- To mix into sauces and dressings, particularly in vinegar-forward recipes
Likewise, you can also swap sake into recipes calling for rice wine vinegar. Note that sake and rice wine are not the same product, even though they’re both derived from similar rice bases and both undergo fermentation.
Where Can I Find Good Sake?
Break from the beer-and wine-drinking mold to explore the exciting, dynamic world of Japanese sake. Takara Sake is the leading producer and seller of both imported and domestic sake in the U.S., bringing sake’s many styles and flavors straight to your home.
Explore our Online Store featuring premium Junmai sake ready to ship directly to your door.