Sake Swaps – A Festive Guide for Winter!

Written by KJ Sakura

Are you that person who always drinks Beaujolais Nouveau during the holidays? Or do you know someone who just can’t live without bubbly on New Years Eve? Haven’t you grown tired of the same spiked concoctions at every Christmas celebration? How much eggnog or mulled wine can one really drink in 6 weeks?

Luckily, I am here to sooth you of your woes. I have all the necessary sake swaps for your commonplace beverage choices during this festive, wintery season!

 Natural Wine → Tamagawa Yamahai Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu “White Label” (Kinoshita Brewery@Kyoto)
This brew is a natural wine lover’s answer to the sake conundrum. It has every element necessary to be classified as “natural.” It’s a Junmai, meaning it only consists of koji, rice, yeast and brewing water. It is muroka, which means it has never been charcoal filtered therefore retaining its pure color and aromatic expression. It is unpasteurized, so it has never been subdued by heat and it is “genshu” aka undiluted! Normally sake are diluted down to 15-16% alcohol to make them more palatable, but this one retains it’s 22% alcohol content! The other important factor is this sake’s intense aromas of umami influenced by the yamahai yeast starter method and warmer fermentation temperatures.

Champagne/Sparkling → Chiyomusubi Junmai Ginjo Sparkling Sorah “Beautiful Aurora” (Chiyomusubi Sake Brewery@Tottori)
Although sparkling sake is the youngest category in the premium sake clan, this beautiful bubbly made with the second fermentation in the bottle similar to Champagne is a triumph for sparkling sake production. It is a brut level sweetness which means there is some residual sugar left in the bottle, but it does not come off as sweet. This sake expresses itself as a dry sparkling with opulent fruit and rice aromas. Try Sorah in replacement of a big house Champagne or a refreshing Prosecco!

 Beaujolais Nouveau → Masumi Junmai Ginjo Hiyaoroshi “Sleeping Beauty” (Miyasaka Brewery@Nagano)
Flavor-wise, this sake does not taste like Beaujolais Nouveau, but the concept surrounding its release is similar. Namazake are traditionally made seasonally and the major seasons for this brew are Spring and Fall. Hiyaoroshi are the fall styles which go through one pasteurization (nama-zume) before settling down for a few months aging before release. Aromas of cinnamon, crème, persimmon and pear dominate this outstanding autumn brew.

Hot Buttered Rum → Kenbishi Kuromatsu Honjozo “Black Pine” (Kenbishi Sake Brewing@Hyogo)
Kenbishi is one of the oldest sake brands still in existence. They have perfected their techniques since 1505 and it is no surprise that they have created a brew with such exquisite balance. Hints of sweetness hide behind loads of umami, complex flavors and a thick, silky texture. Some cocoa nib and maple aromas complete the package. Overall, this is one of the best sakes out there and can be enjoyed at all temperatures. If you are looking for that savory, sweet and boozy hot buttered rum style, warm up some Kenbishi Honjozo and you will have yourself a winner.

 Eggnog → Murai Family Genshu “Peach River” (Momokawa Brewing@Aomori)
Instead of drinking a custardy crème-filled cocktail, why not try this high-octane beast of a nigori that has everything one could ask for? Tons of sake kasu which make the brew super textural and cloudy, delicate sweetness that balances the hefty 19.9% alcohol content and loads of complexity between each component. They say people start with nigori and then move on to more elegant styles. This is a nigori I come back to as often as possible!

Glühwein (mulled wine) → Ippongi Hannyatou Spicy Umeshu “Hot Devil” (Ippongi Kubo Honten@Fukui)
It is rare to find an umeshu that isn’t too sweet to drink a whole bottle of. Hannyatou is a whole different ball game! The sweet ume character of this sake is balanced perfectly with infusion of hot chili pepper! They don’t skimp on the spice either! Some people like to temper the heat by adding whole milk, but that is unnecessary! Drink it ice cold and enjoy the hot spice which mimics the effect of clove and star anise in a classic mulled wine.

 Chilled Vermouth → Ine Mankai Junmai Genshu “Ine’s Full Bloom” (Mukai Brewery@Kyoto)
Vermouth is the beverage snobs tipple of choice during the holidays. Getting a good brand or making it from scratch can fill your house with amazing smells and impress your guests. If you are committed to taking the nerdy sophisticated route, I highly recommend diving into Ine Mankai’s red rice sake. It is an extravaganza of flavor and concentration! This sake is a genshu at 14% alcohol, meaning the fermentation was halted early to preserve the intense aromas present and maintain some residual sugar. The result is a beautiful red sake exuding aromas of smoke, dried cherries, orange zest and bacon fat! It should be served chilled like a white wine and enjoyed in a Riesling glass or tumbler.  

 Spiked Punch → Ichinokura Himezen “Princess Food” (Ichinokura@Miyagi)
This girly darling has everything its name promises… fantastic fruity aromas such as lemonade and strawberries pair with delicate alcohol content and a soft, sultry texture to finish! It’s like drinking your neighbor’s punch but wondering if they forgot to add the booze. Eventually, you will realize it’s there… probably when you try to stand up. Don’t flirt too hard with Himezen!

Dry Cider/Sauvignon Blanc → Takenotsuyu Hakuro Suishu Junmai Daiginjo “Winter Water” (Takenotsuyu Brewery@Yamagata)
This vivacious brew displays fresh aromas of green apple, herbs and pear with a dry, mineral finish. This sake is the hard cider’s twin sister! It also has the benefit of being gluten free which is important to some cider drinkers. The fragrant flavors evident in this sake are also reminiscent of new world Sauvignon Blanc bottlings from the USA and New Zealand. 

Port/Sherry → Hanahato Kijoushu “Gorgeous Bird” (Enoki Brewery@Hiroshima)
Nothing ends a winter day better than this ultimate nightcap. During Kijoshu production, a portion of brewing water is replaced with sake and is then aged which likens this category to high-quality fortified wines. It exudes fantastic aromas of dried fruits, cigars and toasted nuts with a touch of umami on the finish.

 Hot Cocoa → Kikusui Funaguchi “Red” (Kikusui Sake@Niigata)
While this sake has no actual chocolate in it; it has distinct notes of cocoa nib with a touch of residual sugar to sweeten it up. Yes… this brew is served chilled, but its 19% alcohol content will warm you up just the same!

Most of these sakes are currently available and the links provided will send you to True Sake’s website.  They were the first retail sake shop to open in America and are still the ultimate purveyors of hand sold sake in the country.
Please take a chance this holiday season and use one of my sake swap suggestions to make your next party or night at home a flavorful trip to the land of the rising sun! Kanpai and Happy Winter Everyone!