If your only experience with sake has been the complimentary pour at a Japanese steak house, you're probably not that familiar with this fermented beverage. That was the extent of my own knowledge about sake until a couple of weeks ago when fellow food and drink journalist Lisa Howard-Fusco invited me to join her in Atlantic City where Adam Colon, beverage manager at Buddakan, took us through a basic sake tasting.

What is sake?

Often referred to as rice wine, sake is a traditional Japanese fermented beverage made from milled rice, water, koji (a fungus) and yeast. The method for making sake has been around for 3,000 years. Technically, it's not wine since wine is made from fermented grapes. It's closer to beer because it's made from a fermented grain and brewed in a similar manner. However, it drinks more like a wine with flavor profiles that are similar and a food-friendliness that you'll often get with wine.

It's not wine. It's not beer. It's sake.

Sake's similarity to wine

Think of all the different varieties of rice you see when you go to the grocery store. What you see is only a tiny fraction of the varietals available. According to the Rice Association, there are more than 40,000 varieties of rice. Not all varieties are used to make sake, but producers have a plethora to choose from. Add to that variety the different types of soil and climate that rice can be grown in — like wine's terroir — and you get a better idea about how sake can begin to have the same floral and fruity notes as wine. Distilled alcohol can also add to the floral and fruity notes in sake.

Although sake is frequently served in a small round glass or something similar to a juice glass, it's becoming more common to serve it in wine glasses. When served in a wine glass, the rice wine nuances are easier to detect.

Also like wine, a higher price doesn't necessarily mean a better quality. You can find quality sake in both the high and low prices ranges. You can also find sake that doesn't taste so great in both price ranges.

"The new brewers that are more inexperienced and aren't well established, that will be cheaper," said Colon. "You can find a gem in there because they know what they're doing."

Categories of sake

Colon says there are "thousand different types and varieties" of sake, and he introduced us to six major categories that vary by how much the rice grains are polished and the percentage of distilled alcohol in the sake. The amount of polishing will make a difference on the starch/sugar concentration, which will affect the flavor. A higher percentage of polished rice usually results in more varied flavors in the sake. Not all sakes have added distilled alcohol. Those without it are considered "pure" sake.

  1. Juneau: Purist, most basic sake. About 30 percent of the grains are polished and 70 percent are left unmilled with no added distilled alcohol.
  2. Honjozo: This sake is also 30 percent polished, 70 percent unmilled. It has added distilled alcohol.
  3. Junmai Ginjo: About 40 percent polished/60 percent unpolished with no added alcohol.
  4. Ginjo: About 40 percent polished/60 percent unpolished with added distilled alcohol.
  5. Juneau Daiginjo: About 50 percent polished/50 percent unpolished with no added distilled alcohol.
  6. Daiginjo: About 50 percent polished/50 percent unpolished with added distilled alcohol.

sake The sake at the Buddakan tasting: Pure Dawn (Junmai Ginjo); Nigori Genshu (not one of the categories - it's an unfiltered sake); Black & Gold (basic Junmai), Horan (Junmai Daiginjo); and Zipang (sparkling sake). (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

A few other things to know about sake

  • There is such a thing as sparkling sake. It's not as carbonated as champagne, but it's definitely bubbly. (The sparkling sake we tasted that day was my personal favorite.)
  • Sake is usually filtered like wine, but it can also be unfiltered. Like the trendy natural wines that are unfiltered, they will take on a bit of a funkier, more complex taste.
  • To get the full complexity of sake, chew it in your mouth. (Similar to swirling wine around your mouth when doing a tasting.)
  • Sake can be paired with all cuisines, not just Asian. It pairs particularly well with chicken, fish and spicy foods. Colon says it doesn't pair well with rice, ironically.

The best way to understand sake, like any food or beverage, is to taste it yourself. Buddakan has a nice variety to choose from in both its Atlantic City and Philadelphia locations. If you aren't located near one of these locations, ask for some guidance in your local liquor store or find a Japanese restaurant near you with a good sake list — and then ask a lot of questions. With that approach, you are more likely to be guided to something that might be pleasing to your palate.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.