Sake 101 in Celebration of Sake Day

Today is International Sake Day. In advance of the occasion, we caught up with National Sake Sommelier Michael Tremblay at Ki in Toronto for a little sake crash course. Tremblay is Ontario’s first certified Advanced Sake Professional, having trained with world-renowned sake expert John Gauntner in New York and Tokyo. 

Founded in 1978, International Sake Day focuses on the role of the popular Japanese beverage in celebrations through civilization. In the past five years or so, Tremblay tells us that sake has been more widely available in Canada, and that more people are falling in love with it every year. Occasions like Ki’s intimate sake dinners are increasingly popular, and guests leave armed with new-found sake knowledge while becoming friends over the course of the evening. Ki carries close to 60 types of sake, some of which are difficult to find anywhere else in the country, or North America, for that matter. Here’s what we learned… 

The Misconceptions:
What we typically think of sake is actually futsu, or table sake, and Tremblay tells us that it gives sake a bad reputation. Table sake involves no milling constraints and table rice is often used; the addition of a lot of distilled alcohol makes it inexpensive. There has, however, been a renaissance of premium warm sake in Toronto (and across the country) as we become more cultured and informed about it.

“The misconception with sake is that the low-grade hot sake is what sake is all about; but there are so many high-quality sakes, some that are better when served cold,” says Tremblay. “Another misconception is that sake is a boozy drink, but it’s not. Some people think it’s distilled when it’s in fact brewed, which lowers the alcohol content.”

Sake vs. Wine:
Sake’s dry/sweet range can’t be compared to that of wine, so don’t think too literally In terms of the descriptors. Like wine, however, Tremblay describes the sakes tried using terms like “light bodied, round and crisp.”

Unlike a fine wine, sake does not age well and typically shouldn’t last more than a year and a half. It is not meant to be stored for a long time in a cellar like wine is.

Regular wine glasses are fine, but Tremblay suggests just buying the sake, not the glasswear. A tip? Affordable sake ceramic is available in Toronto’s Kensington Market. “When serving sake, keep in mind that it changes drastically with different temperatures,” says Tremblay. “Certain sakes you wouldn’t recognize if it were chilled, even if it’s a difference of 2-3 degrees.”

Like wine, you can swirl and nose sake. We detected a variety of notes throughout the sake tasting – everything from marshmallow to caramel to bursts of apple and pear.

Role of Water:
Water is the most important ingedient in sake making, and it affects the quality of the rice. Bad water is the equivalent to bad grapes in the wine world.

Sake with Food:
Sake in general is food-friendly and pairs well with most hot dishes, cold plates and modern takes on sushi. It is also increasingly used as a marinade in Toronto restaurants. Sake is still an up and coming complement to food, unlike wine pairings. Characteristics in wine affect what happens in the meal and can pretty much ruin it. Unlike wine, it is rare for sake to make or break a meal.

Sake Cocktails:
Ki has been doing sake cocktails for years, and the lower alcohol content makes it great for mixing. The silky texture offers the right backbone to the cocktail; Ki seamlessly infuses its cocktails with things like Kyoto sour bitters. 

The Health Benefits
Sake is rich with amino acids and lower in acidity than wine. It’s also said to be incredible for the skin, and there are many skincare items on the market with sake by-products. “A sake brewer’s hands are as soft as a baby’s bottom,” says Tremblay.

Key Terms:

Tokutei Meishoshu:
Special designation sake. This accounts for the top 20% of sake production, including Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo and Daiginjo.

Rice that has been milled down to less than 50% of its original size; the pinnacle of the sake brewer’s craft. Typically lighter, more fragrant and fruity than most Ginjo.

Rice that has been milled down to 60% of its original size and fermented at colder temperatures. It is elegant, refined and aromatic.

Pure rice sake (no alcohol added). Rice can be milled down to any percentage (up to 70%) as long as it’s listed on the label. It is typically full-bodied with pronounced acidity.

Rice polished down to a minimum of 70% and containing a little added brewer’s alcohol. It is fragrant and lighter-bodied than Junmai.

Unfiltered or “cloudy.” It is textured and creamy on the palette.

Undiluted. Typically bold with higher alcohol content.

Unpasteurized, lively and fruity.

Table sake, often made with table rice and a lot of distilled alcohol.

Check out Tremblay’s blog,, for more information on sake and for ways to enhance the sake experience.