10 Best Sake Brands in Japan: A Beginner’s Guide
With over 2,000 years of history, the immense diversity and culture surrounding Japanese sake makes choosing your introductory brew a monumental task! While it’s tempting to just dive right in, the wrong sake drunk the wrong way could put you off forever! To help you get started, we’ve tailored a list of 10 Japanese sake brands perfect for first-timers. Complete with individual taste profiles, temperature guides, and purchasing info, the murky world of Japanese sake is about to become a whole lot clearer!
May 20 2021 (Jun 11 2021)
The Tantalizing World of Japanese Sake Brands
From the crisp dries to the tangy sweets, the sheer variety of Japanese sake brands and flavors rivals that of any other beverage.
This diversity is largely born from brewing techniques, many of which have been passed down and remain a brewer’s secret. One of the most important is the “rice polishing ratio,” which determines the level in which individual rice grains are milled to remove their outer husk. As these layers are filled with protein and fats undesirable for sake brewing, as a general rule, the more the rice is polished, the higher the sake quality. This is further enhanced by ingredient selection, yeast type, fermenting techniques, aging, and more.
A Japanese Sake Brand for Everyone
Tried sake once and didn’t like it? Don’t worry - we’ve all been there! Even professional sommeliers have brews they won’t touch. This simply means you haven’t discovered the right sake for you. To help you out, we’ve curated the definitive list of Japanese sake brands perfect for beginners. With an assortment of tastes, styles, and regions, your new favorite is bound to be included! Of course, if you’re already a sake fan, this list can serve as a checklist to ensure you’ve had the best!
As an additional sake resource, don’t miss our guide to choosing, buying, and drinking sake in Japan.
1. Dassai (Asahi Brewery, Yamaguchi)
As one of Japan’s most esteemed brews, Dassai is on the menu at thousands of restaurants and izakaya (Japanese pubs) nationwide. All members of the vast Dassai family, which range between 2,000 to over 30,000 yen a bottle, are known for their delicate sweet taste and potent aromas. Using the eminent Yamada Nishiki strain of rice, which is notoriously difficult to cultivate, Dassai yields a full body with a light mouthfeel. It was also the first sake brand in Japan to use a centrifuge to separate the sake from the fermenting mash, an innovative technique that contributed heavily to its taste and fame.
Taste: Clear, crisp, and with a light fruity undertone
Temperature: Best enjoyed cold, but not straight from the fridge. Around 12°C is perfect.
Price (720 ml): From 1,650 yen (Dassai Junmai Ginjo 45)
Online Store: No - List of worldwide and Japanese retailers stocking Dassai can be found here
Website (JP): https://www.asahishuzo.ne.jp/
Website (Eng): https://www.asahishuzo.ne.jp/en/
2. Hakkaisan (Hakkaisan Brewery, Niigata)
Taking advantage of the pristine water of the surrounding Japanese Alps, the crisp brews of Hakkaisan perfectly encapsulate the untainted nature of its homeland of Niigata Prefecture. While it’s common for breweries to reserve the finest ingredients and most experienced brewers for their premium lineup, Hakkaisan strives to ensure all their brews are cultivated with expert care and rigorous quality control. Even their bottom-shelf “futsushu” brew has an impressive rice polishing ratio of 60% - much higher than sake brands of a similar price. Hakkaisan are also leaders in innovation, with their "snow-aged sake" matured in a room cooled by natural snow for three years presenting the pinnacle of brewing creativity.
Taste: Crisp and slightly dry with umami flavors and a thin mouthfeel similar to water
Temperature: Most of their regular brews are great hot, cold, or room temperature
Price (720 ml): From 1,257 yen (Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo)
Online Store: No - List of worldwide and Japanese retailers stocking Hakkaisan can be found here
Website (JP): https://www.hakkaisan.co.jp/sake/
Website (Eng): https://www.hakkaisan.com/
3. Kokuryu (Kokuryu Brewery, Fukui)
Often referred to as a “phantom sake brand” due to its scarcity and value, Kokuryu is one of Japan’s most coveted brews. Their eminent “Jungin” sake is brewed from rice with a respectable polishing ratio of 55% before being thoroughly fermented at low temperatures to yield a delicate, refined sake with infinite pairing possibilities. Kokuryu brewers are extremely particular about their ingredients, using only naturally-filtered water from Fukui Prefecture's Kuzuryu River and rice cultivated by farmers in the rural Ono region of eastern Fukui.
Taste: Fresh, pure, and well-balanced
Temperature: Thoroughly chilled
Price (720 ml): From 1,540 yen (Kokuryu Jungin)
Online Store: No - List of Japanese retailers stocking Kokuryu can be found here (Japanese only)
Website (JP): https://www.kokuryu.co.jp/
Website (Eng): https://www.kokuryu.co.jp/en/
4. Nabeshima (Fukuchiyo Brewery, Saga)
Boasting a collection of impressive accolades, including Champion Sake at the 2011 International Wine Challenge, Nabeshima is the choice sake brand of experienced international connoisseurs. Its fruity punch and refined sweetness is met by a wholesome umami aftertaste, making it a pleasant introductory brew for beginners. There's a staggering diversity of tastes within the series born from varying rice strains and brewing techniques, including an unpasteurized sake drip-filtered in a cloth bag in a technique known as “shizuku.”
Taste: Sweet, fruity, and mellow, with some drier brews available
Price (720 ml): From 1,980 yen (Tokubetsu Junmai Brew)
Online Store: No - List of Japanese retailers stocking Nabeshima can be found here (Japanese)
Website (JP): https://nabeshima.biz/
Website (Eng): https://nabeshima.biz/english/sake.html
5. Suzune (Ichinokura Brewery, Miyagi)
When it comes to sake brands for beginners, there’s no escaping Suzune. Fun and fruity, this sparkling sake is a classy party drink fitting for big nights out. Coming in small 300 ml bottles with an ABV (alcohol by volume) of just 5%, it yields a moderate buzz suitable for light drinkers. After being poured into a glass and aerated, it bursts with fruity aromas stimulating the senses and whetting the appetite. Despite the small bottle, Suzune costs almost the same as some 720 ml sake, which may be off-putting to thriftier shoppers. However, it more than makes up for its modest size with an enticing fragrance, eye-catching bottle, and explosive flavor.
Taste: Tart and sweet, mellowed by gentle carbonation. Reminiscent of sparkling wine or a cocktail.
Price (300 ml): From 815 yen
Online Store: Yes (Jizake Shop Liaison, Japanese only)
Website (JP): https://ichinokura.co.jp/
Website (Eng): https://ichinokura.co.jp/en
6. Funaguchi Kikusui (Kikusui Brewery, Niigata)
Recognized by its distinctive yellow aluminium can, Kikusui Brewery’s Funaguchi is a common sight in convenience stores and supermarkets Japan-wide. While “one-cup” sake once had a poor reputation, Kikusui rectified this by putting premium unpasteurized and unfiltered sake in stylish UV-protected aluminium cans. While the extremely high ABV of 19% gives off a potent alcoholic taste and smell, its full-body and sweet aftertaste make it surprisingly easy to drink. The sparkling version, which retains the same ABV, goes down particularly well.
Taste: Potent and flavorful with a powerful sweetness. Has an alcoholic burn due to the high ABV.
Price (200 ml): From 272 yen
Online Store: Yes (Japanese only)
Website (JP): https://www.kikusui-sake.com/home/jp/
Website (Eng): https://www.kikusui-sake.com/home/en/
7. Koshi no Kanbai (Ishimoto Brewery, Niigata)
Also from Niigata Prefecture is the iconic Koshi no Kanbai. A former phantom sake brand, its grassroots popularity led to a nationwide surge in demand and increase in production, making it easy to find nowadays. It embodies the definitive Niigata “tanrei karakuchi” taste, characterized by a sharp, clear mouthfeel with a dry edge and potent umami. The Koshi no Kanbai line is extensive, with both economical and extravagant brews each distinguished by color-coded labels. For those on a budget, the standard Koshi no Kanbai White will serve very well. If you’ve got a bit more to spend, the elegant turquoise Koshi no Kanbai Sai is an absolute joy!
Taste: Dry, simple, and clean, with the more expensive bottles in the range having stronger umami tastes
Temperature: Chilled or room temperature
Price (720 ml): From 1,137 yen (White Label), From 1,862 yen (Junmai Ginjo Sai)
Online Store: Yes (Japanese only)
Website (JP): https://koshinokanbai.co.jp/
8. Isojiman (Isojiman Brewery, Shizuoka)
Isojiman, meaning “seashore pride,” is brewed in honor of the seafood-rich, prosperous beaches in the brewery’s hometown of Yaizu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Brewed crisp and dry with a refined fruity fragrance, it's often the bottle of choice for local fishermen celebrating a particularly abundant haul. The rice is sourced from a premium selection grown in Hyogo Prefecture while the yeast is a locally-developed strain yielding a stable and refreshing character. In order to maintain their impeccable standards, Isojiman sake is only sold to certain pre-approved suppliers, making it difficult to find. If you do encounter a bottle, don’t waste the opportunity to try this exquisite delight!
Taste: Mostly dry with a subtle sweetness and mild acidity
Temperature: Slightly chilled
Price (720 ml): From 1,870 yen (Isojiman Tokubetsu Honjozo)
Online Store: No - List of Japanese retailers stocking Isojiman can be found here (Japanese)
Website (JP): http://www.isojiman-sake.jp/
Website (Eng): http://www.isojiman-sake.jp/en/
9. No.6 (Aramasa Brewery, Akita)
Housed in a sophisticated bottle worthy of the finest restaurants, No.6 gifts the world of sake with a classy touch of European elegance. The No.6 title comes from the name of the brewing yeast, which are given numbers depending on the order of their discovery and development. No. 6 was developed at Aramasa Brewery and is favored for its ability to draw out the essence of rice in its purest form. With a tangy flavor and sharp acidity, No.6 sits somewhere between white wine and traditional sake. It is also lightly carbonated, eminiting a playful buzz complemented by mouth-watering aromas evoking strawberries and peach.
Taste: Sweet, like white wine with a gentle fizziness and umami aftertaste
Price (720 ml): From 10,000 yen (No.6 S-type)
Online Store: No - List of Japanese retailers stocking Aramasa brews can be found here (Japanese only)
Website (JP): http://www.aramasa.jp/
10. Hiroki (Hiroki Brewery, Fukushima)
Once known for its long-standing “Izumikawa” sake, this once-struggling, old-age brewery was shaken up by its successor in 1999 with an exciting new label called "Hiroki." Instantly becoming a nationwide sensation, Hiroki boasts a delicate fusion of sweetness and umami yielding a versatility that can be paired with almost any food. The Hiroki range encompasses a wide collection of tastes, with the “Tokubetsu Junmai” being the most accessible contender with a decent price and agreeable character sure to suit most palates. However, due to its scariety, even locals have trouble finding Hiroki, and it has since become deemed as another “phantom sake brand.”
Taste: A well-balanced, fresh sweetness and delicate fragrance
Temperature: Generally chilled, but warm is also recommended
Price (720 ml): From 5,000 yen (Junmai Ginjo)
Online Store: No - List of Japanese retailers stocking Hiroki can be found here (Japanese only)
Website (JP): http://www.hechima.co.jp/~souta/hiroki/kura_shokai.html
Other Useful Japanese Sake Brand Rankings
While the above sake brands are all delicious, they differ dramatically in price, taste, and region. For some extra direction, we’ve added a few more rankings to help clear up the picture. This includes the most popular sake brands of 2021 according to Sake Time, one of Japan’s largest sake ranking websites, along with wine-like sake for beginners and some thrifty options for those on a budget.
Easiest Sake Brands to Drink For Beginners
1. Dassai: Delightfully sweet and easy to drink, but still reminiscent of sake.
2. Suzune: Similar to a sweet sparkling wine - very easy on the mouth!
3. No.6: Sits somewhere between white wine and sake. Easy to drink but still retains the characteristics of traditional sake.
Best Sake Brands of 2021 (Sake Time)
1. Juyondai (Takagi Brewery): The epitome of the current “mellow umami” sake trend, Juyondai yields a sweet character with savory undertones and a lingering aftertaste. More information here (Japanese only).
2. Shinshu Kirei (Okazaki Brewery): A clean, dry sake enjoyed warm and paired with hearty meat dishes. More information here (Japanese only).
3. Hana-abi (Nanyo Brewery): Noted for powerful fruity aromas with a full-bodied, delicate sweetness. More information here.
Best Sake Brands for the Money (That Also Taste Good!)
1. Funaguchi Kikusui (200 ml / from 272 yen): Comes in thrifty cans with a high ABV for a fast buzz. Delicious, well-rounded, and far superior to competitor sake cups.
2. Kikusui Gorohachi (720 ml / from 954 yen): A chunky nigori (sake with rice grains leftover) with an exceptional quality and high ABV for a great price. More information here (Japanese only).
3. Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo (720 ml / from 1,257 yen): A steal considering its well-balanced character and premium ingredients.
Where to Buy Japanese Sake Brands
How to Buy Sake Brands in Japan
If you’re already in Japan, there’s guaranteed to be a sake store near you! For starters, the popular Aeon Liquor and Yamaya have a bold sake selection with outlets dotted all across the country. In Tokyo, major department stores like Ikebukuro’s Masushin and Tobu, Isetan in Shinjuku, and the Tokyu Department Store in Shibuya all have a broad liquor section with much of the sake listed above.
For more obscure sake brands, it’s best to visit the prefecture it was brewed in. Most liquor shops will stock the local brew, while the brewery itself may also have a direct outlet. Of course, not all breweries are set up like this, so a quick search online beforehand is essential. Fortunately, this isn’t a concern for Niigata sake brands thanks to the comprehensive tasting course available at the local Ponshukan sake museum and souvenir store. We stop here during our 4 Days Off the Beaten Track in Gunma and Niigata tour, so take a look for more information!
How to Buy Sake Brands From Overseas
Even if you’re not in Japan, most major global cities will have liquor stores and bars specializing in Japanese sake. There’s also a world of online sake distributors easily found through a simple search. This includes Tippsy and NapaCabs in the US, Sakeshop in Australia, and Inter Rice Asia in Singapore. Museum of Sake also has a great list of online sake shops across Europe.
Just Scratching the Surface!
We hope this list of 10 top Japanese sake brands for beginners, as well as all the other info in the article, has shined some light on this dynamic historical beverage. While they won’t all be to your liking, we’re certain at least one or two will lead to an exciting gourmet discovery, widening your interest in Japanese culture and encouraging another visit!
Top image: PIXTA
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.