WSETForceBrands is proud to partner with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust which provides globally recognized education and qualifications in wines, spirits, and sake, for professionals and enthusiasts.

Not a wine, a beer, or a spirit, sake is a beverage category unto itself. A cherished pour in Japan for more than 2,500 years, sake is increasingly making its mark across the world, appearing on beverage lists, bottle shelves, and in the cocktails of many drink professionals.

And the figures back it up — exports out of Japan topped 23,481kl in 2017, an increase of +19 percent on the previous year, while a new wave of craft sake breweries has been cropping up across North America, Europe, and beyond.

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust offers two globally recognized qualifications that help drink professionals develop their sake knowledge. But for those who want to learn the basics now, here are five key sake facts you need to know.

1. How sake is made
Sake is made from four key ingredients: rice, water, kōji (rice mold), and yeast. Like wine and beer, sake is made via a process of fermentation and filtration. The rice used to make sake is not your everyday long-grain variety, but a special strain of rice that undergoes polishing to remove its outer layers. Some grains are polished so much that less than half of the original grain is left. The amount of polishing affects the style of the sake that’s being made.

2. It’s stronger than wine but lighter than spirits
The alcohol content of sake is typically between 15-17 percent ABV, making it slightly higher than wine but much lower than a spirit, as it does not undergo distillation. After fermentation, alcohol is sometimes added to enhance the flavors but is moderated by water. Sake also has naturally low acidity, which combined with the alcohol contributes to its body and texture, making it easier to enjoy and suitable for a range of occasions.

3. Sake comes in different styles
Sakes can generally be categorized into two flavor profiles: fragrant (Ginjō) or savory (non-Ginjō). The flavors are guided by production techniques such as the degree to which the rice has been polished, the type of yeast used, and the temperature of the fermentation. Ginjō styles tend to have fruity and floral aromas, while non-Ginjō styles have more cereal and earthy characteristics. There are many, many styles of sake from cloudy, to sparkling, sweet, or aged. There is simply no one style of sake, so there’s something to suit almost every taste.

4. It can be enjoyed in many ways
Traditionally sake was served warmed in small ceramic cups, but today sake is enjoyed in lots of ways. All styles can be sipped straight, with non-Ginjō styles often warmed to between 100-120°F. The lighter Ginjō styles work well served chilled in a classic wine glass, as the shape of the glass helps to enhance the delicate fruity aromas of the style. Amongst bartenders, sake is becoming increasingly popular for its ability to add texture and depth to cocktails. Many are also using sake as a base in low alcohol cocktails and in beverage programs that only have a wine and beer license and want to add some further nuance to their offerings.

5. It pairs amazingly with food
In Japan, you may hear the phrase “Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai” which translates as “Sake never fights with food.” So, while it’s an obvious match for Japanese food, sake is incredibly versatile and pairs amazingly well with an array of western cuisines from Italian to Mexican thanks to its low bitterness and acidity and slightly sweet character, which complement a dish without overpowering its flavors.

With drinkers around the world seeking new flavors and experiences, sake is primed to deliver. The informed drinks professional can no longer overlook this once obscure beverage.

If you’re looking to expand your beverage knowledge, sake is a smart choice to have under your belt. Enhancing your résumé with a sake qualification is an effective way to stand out from your peers and delight your customers. Our Level 1 Award in Sake can be gained through six hours of study with a WSET Approved Programme Provider, so why not find your local provider and enroll today?

This article was contributed by Rob McCaughey, WSET’s Business Development Adviser, Americas – Spirits & Sake