How to Pair Sake with Grilled Summer Foods

Rachel Tepper Paley
August 5, 2014

Photo credit: Judd Pilossof/StockFood

Grilling season being in full, smoky swing, your first instinct might be to pair those charred lamb kebabs and blistered tomatoes with a crisp white wine or a chilled lager.

But maybe, says Lukas Smith, beverage director of the ramen-centric Daikaya in Washington, D.C., give sake a chance. 

"Sake is the most forgiving beverage" when it comes to pairings, Smith told us. The fermented rice elixir is "going to taste better with more things—you can get it ‘wrong’ and you still don’t lose.”

That’s because sake is lighter-bodied and generally has less sodium than beer or wine, Smith said. “Sake doesn’t crowd your palate like beer or wine does,” Smith explained. “It provides a blanket [under] which other flavors can find room.”

The best way to break down different sakes is not by flavor—most have mild notes of honeydew—but by refinement. According to Smith, there are three major sake classifications: junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo. Each grade indicates the degree to which the rice used to make the sake has been polished, with junmai being the least polished and junmai daiginjo the most.

More polished sakes, such as junmai daiginjo, have an ethereal, fruity quality and are less astringent, Smith said. They’re starchier, because the rice’s protein-rich outer layer has been stripped away, and more expensive, because more rice is required to make a single serving of sake. But it’s the lower, less-expensive grades that pair best with grilled fare.

"Steak calls for a more rustic, earthy, powerful sake," Smith said. Junmai and junmai ginjo sakes, which have more protein, “more muscle,” and can better stand up to the strong flavors those grill marks produce. 

Smith suggests G Fifty, a junmai ginjo sake produced by the Forest Grove, Oregon-based craft sake brewery Sake One. “It’s going to be bigger [than other sakes], and have a bit more astringency on the finish,” he said. “It has the shape of a wine,” which helps it stand up to grilled meats and vegetables. (G Fifty retails here for $25 a bottle.)

He also digs another junmai ginjo sake, Taisetsu Ice Dome from the Takasago Sake Brewery in Japan, for its full body and clean finish. Though both G Fifty and Ice Dome have bright, assertive melon-like flavors, high astringency, and a mineral quality, “Ice Dome has a smoother presentation, and it’s not going to be as masculine.” (It sells here for $12.50 a bottle.)

Smith’s one exception to his aforementioned lesser grade-rule is the Dassai 50 junmai daiginjo nigori sake from Japanese brewery Atsahi Shuzo. Nigori means “unfiltered,” which means that the rice particles removed during the rice polishing process have been dumped back into the sake before bottling. This gives the sake a cloudy appearance and creamy flavor.

"They’re bigger [flavor-wise] because they’re denser than other sakes," Smith said. "They tend to be suitable for pairing with salty, grilled foods. Oilier foods play well with them, too." (As it happens, Dassai 50 isn’t all that expensive; it sells here for just $27.99 a bottle.)

The one essential thing to remember? Serve your sake cold.

"I think sake—not always, but almost always—should be kept and served cold," Smith stressed. "The colder something is, the more acidic it tastes, and that’s especially [important] when you’re eating grilled foods."

Of course, Smith said, there are plenty of other excellent sakes that pair well with grilled foods. The key is to find one with a texture and body that can stand up to hearty, smoky flavors.

Smith suggests doing as he did when he first began learning about sake: Go out and buy different kinds of sake, then experiment at home. “You can get three bottles for $60 bucks and they’ll last you two weeks,” Smith said. Sake pairs with nearly everything. Everything.

"One day I wondered, ‘How does it taste with cereal?’" Smith recounted. "Turns out there are some sakes that pair well with cereal."