One of sake’s greatest virtues is its purity. The alcohol only contains three ingredients: rice, koji (a type of fungus also used to make miso and soy sauce), and water. During the brewing process, the koji breaks down the rice to create glucose, which is then converted into alcohol. Sake is often categorized by the “rice polishing ratio,” which measures how much of the outer grain is removed through polishing prior to brewing. A lower number indicates a high milling rate and and a more “premium” product that is lighter in body and subtler in aroma. Two common terms are ginjo—which specifies that 60 percent or less of the grain is left—and daiginjo, meaning 50 percent or less.
From a dietary perspective, a four-ounce glass of ginjo sake usually clocks in at 125 calories (a five-ounce glass of red wine is nearly identical) and has about a 20 percent alcohol percentage. While you shouldn’t start substituting sake for amino acid–rich foods like eggs, when it comes to alcohol, sake is a good source of these essential components, according to San Francisco–based registered dietician Manuel Villacorta. These compounds are known to support a range of bodily functions, including immunity and vision. For athletes, amino acids help rebuild muscle, says Villacorta. They also ignite the umami receptor, or the “fifth taste,” he adds. Preliminary research shows umami may contribute to a sense of satiation. "In general, higher levels of amino acids indicate a more full-bodied, rounder, and richer-tasting sake," says Bethany Snodgrass, New York City–based holistic health coach and operations manager at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. "If you are drinking sake for the amino acids, go for these characteristics to get the most out of it," she recommends. Also, Snodgrass says, "it's always about moderation. Consuming no more than one to two drinks in a sitting is a healthy habit to work towards."
For those with a gluten intolerance, sake is a great choice, as its base ingredients are naturally gluten-free. The one caveat: It may be hard to determine if the added alcohol in a honjozo sake (a common label term that indicates alcohol was added to boost body and aroma, to increase dryness, or as an extra preservative) was distilled from a grain, so if trace amounts are unbearable, junmai (a term that indicates no alcohol was added) might be a better bet. The broad range of sake styles makes for a number of good food pairings:
Many sommeliers agonize over what beverages to serve with vegetables like Brussels sprouts and artichokes, but the lower acid profile and rich umami of sake cuts through the bitterness of the ingredients. Pair With: Kikusui Funaguchi, Nama Genshu Honjozo
The high amino acid levels in fuller-bodied sakes activate umami receptors, which pairs well with the savoriness of meats such as grilled chicken or steak. Pair With: Tentaka Kuni Hawk in the Heavens Junmai Sake