While cleaning your cupboard, you found a bottle of sake in the corner. You have completely forgotten about this Japanese specialty. It’s getting complicated because it doesn’t carry an expiry date on the label. Although you’re tempted to drink it, you’re also doubtful whether this old sake is still fine to drink? Does sake go bad?
If you are looking for information about sake shelf life, storage, and how to tell if sake has gone bad, read along! This article is for you!
What is Sake?
When you hear the word “sake”, you might think of Japan in a split second. Yes, you get it right. Just like champagne to France or tequila to Mexico, sake is a specialty of Japan.
Sake, or also popular as rice wine, is an alcoholic beverage made by fermentation of rice. It has long been known as part of Japanese culture and named “nihonshu” or literally translated as the alcoholic beverage of Japan. On average, sake contains 15% alcohol by volume.
Sake is usually served as a ceremonial beverage, for a celebration, or a casual dinner with colleagues and friends. Along with the rise of Japanese cuisine and culture, sake also gains worldwide popularity. It is often bought as a souvenir but is also available in many other countries outside Japan.
Unlike the variety of wine that goes by the type of grapes, sake is categorized by the percentage of polished (milled) rice used for the production. When you’re at a sake store, you’ll see so many different names such as Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Ginjo, Shochu, Nigori, etc.
Most sake varieties undergo a pasteurization process (mostly twice) to extend the shelf life. However, if you happen to find a bottle of sake carrying the word “nama” on the label, this one is a type of unpasteurized sake (namazake).
How to Store Sake
Proper storage is important to maintain the flavor and taste of sake. When it comes to storage, sake is very sensitive to light, heat, air, and vibration.
Exposure to lights (both sunlight and fluorescent light) and heat may cause discoloration of sake and degrade the flavor. Therefore, sake bottles are usually in dark green, brown, or blue.
It is also common to wrap sake with newspaper to prevent exposure to lights. Avoid storing a bottle of sake nearby a fridge which sometimes rattles or emits heat.
The recommended temperature of storage varies on the type of sake, usually below 20°C or at room temperature. This is exceptional for unpasteurized sake. Check the label for the instruction.
Pasteurized sake (most types, such as junmai, ginjo, honjozo, etc.) can be kept in a cool, dark, dry area, away from sources of light and heat. The best option is a cellar if you have one. If not, your kitchen pantry or cabinet is also fine.
Unpasteurized sake (namazake) always needs refrigeration and should be kept at or below 5°C. The simple rule, if you take out the bottle from the refrigerated shelf at the store, it should always be kept in the same condition at home.
After opening, ideally, sake should be enjoyed immediately. But, if you have leftover, always store it in the fridge, no matter whether it is pasteurized or not.
Exposure to air should be avoided to slow down oxidation processes that can also ruin the flavor and taste. Always tightly close the bottle. If you have a small amount leftover of sake in the bottle, consider transferring it into a smaller bottle.
How Long Does Sake Last?
According to Japanese Law, a bottle of sake is not required to carry “best before” or “expiry date”. Instead, it shows the production date when the sake is bottled. This date can be your guide for your purchase and consumption.
Does this mean that sake last forever? In terms of safety aspects, as long as an unopened bottle of sake is properly stored and no spoilage signs or impurities are seen, it is likely safe to consume an old bottle of sake. However, the quality will degrade over time.
In general, unopened bottles of pasteurized sake are best consumed within 8-12 months after the production date on the bottle. This period can vary depending on the specific type of sake. Meanwhile, unpasteurized sake (namazake) can last for 6 months after production. Again, it’s the production date that matters, not the date when you bought it.
After opening, it is best consumed immediately within 2 – 3 hours after opening while it is still fresh. When refrigerated, it can last for the next 2 – 3 days. But, in general, it still tastes fine for 2 – 4 weeks, although the flavor might have slightly changed.
How to Tell if Sake is Bad
In terms of quality, sake degrades over time. It is always useful to use your senses to check if sake has gone bad. Check the look, smell, and taste.
Most types of sake are clear, except for aged sake (koshu) that usually has a yellowish or amber color and for unfiltered sake (nigorizake) that is a bit cloudy. If the color has changed into yellowish color, it has started to oxidize. This can happen for old bottles or open bottles.
Sake smells floral, fruity, or sugary. But, if it smells off like pungent, or rotten, this is also another sign that sake is not good.
If it develops molds, especially around the bottle mouth if it is opened for too long, you should consider throwing it.
If you’re not sure, try to give it a taste to decide whether to keep it or discard it. If the taste doesn’t satisfy your palate, then there’s no point to keep it longer.
Although frequently referred to as rice wine, technically sake is not wine and it does not improve with age, except for some varieties of aged sake (koshu) that are aged in the brewery under special conditions. Sake does not improve at home and is suggested for immediate consumption to enjoy its best quality.
Yes, if you happened to have an old bottle of sake, it may have lost its flavor and changes in taste, but it is still good to use for cooking. Use it for Japanese dishes or any recipe that calls for rice wine.
Yes, sake can be enjoyed either warm or chilled. To warm sake, pour it into a small container and put it in a microwave with the lowest setting or with a temperature around 40 – 50°C. Don’t use a higher setting or temperature as sake will start to evaporate and degrade its flavor.
It is also common to warm sake in hot water. Boil the water and turn off the heat source once it’s boiled. Put the container in the water for 2 – 3 minutes.
Sake is a delicate alcoholic beverage. After some time it will start to lose its quality. In general, sake is best consumed within a year, while unpasteurized sake (namazake) is best enjoyed within 6 months after its production date.
Sake can come quite pricey and it’s a pity to let a bottle of sake go wasted. With proper care, it won’t go bad to the point that it harms your health, but you may expect a change in flavor or taste after a while.
You may still want to discard it if the taste and flavor are not enjoyable. Therefore, it is best to drink sake during its prime quality.
*Photo by akiyoko74/depositphotos