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Does Sake Have an Expiration Date?

GP contributor Lynn Allmon finds an old bottle of nihonshu which prompted the question, does sake go bad?

By 3 min read

While doing some cleaning, I found an unopened bottle of nihonshu below my sink. This is what led me to ask the question, “Does nihonshu have an expiration date?”

Nihonshu, sometimes referred to as “sake” or “rice wine” in English, is what most people imagine if they hear the words “Japan” and “alcohol.” Nihonshu shows up on nomihodai (“all-you-can-drink”) menus at Japanese bars and can be bought at convenience stores across Japan. Hopefully you won’t be worrying about the expiration date of newly purchased nihonshu, but if you’ve had some sitting in your fridge for a while, you might wonder whether it’s still okay to drink.

Expiration Date of Nihonshu

In short, producers of alcoholic drinks in Japan are not obligated by law to print an expiration date on certain alcohols, including nihonshu, shōchū, and umeshu. Instead, they must print the production date (製造年月) on the bottle or carton. This production date is not necessary the date that the alcohol was produced, but rather the date the alcohol was bottled. The production date is often displayed left to right, starting with the year, which will sometimes be displayed as the Japanese imperial year, and followed by the month.

Many nihonshu company websites give a rough guideline for how long nihonshu will keep its taste under favorable storage conditions. Below are the expiration guidelines given by the type of nihonshu. The type of nihonshu can usually be found on the label near the product name. As reference, futsū-shu (普通酒) is the most common type of nihonshu.

Expiration Date of Nihonshu by Type

Before opening, drink within about 10 months to 1 year of the production date.

  • Futsū-shu (普通酒)
  • Honjōzō-shu (本醸造酒)
  • Junmai-shu (純米酒)

Before opening, drink within 8 to 10 months of the production date.

  • Daiginjō-shu(大吟醸)
  • Ginjō-shu (吟醸酒)
  • Junmai Ginjō-shu (純米吟醸)
  • Namachozō-shu (生貯蔵酒)

Before opening, drink within 3 to 8 months of the production date.

  • Namazake (生酒)

The standard seems to be about 1 year for unopened ordinary nihonshu (futsū-shu) and about 6 months for unopened unpasteurized nihonshu (namazake). The majority of manufacturers state that nihonshu should be drunk within one month of opening and preferably sooner. Keep in mind that while most nihonshu should be drunk as soon as possible, whether the bottle is opened or not, some types of nihonshu do age well and that the above are simplified guidelines.

Storing Nihonshu

One common thread that ran through explanations about nihonshu expiration dates was that of storage. If properly stored, nihonshu’s flavor can keep for a comparably long time. If improperly stored, the taste of the nihonshu can change within just a few hours.

Unsurprisingly, nihonshu should be kept in a cool, dark place. Direct sunlight and high temperatures can turn nihonshu bad very quickly. Sudden changes in temperature should also be avoided. Nihonshu will generally keep longer if put in the refrigerator or freezer, but may have an odd texture if drunk immediately after being kept at very low temperatures. To be specific, ordinary nihonshu (futsū-shu) should be kept around 15℃ and unpasteurized nihonshu (namazake) should be kept around 3 to 5℃. Recommended storage temperatures can vary, so take a look on the label.

As for the fate of my very old nihonshu, I’m going to be using it for cooking. As long as the nihonshu hasn’t developed a whitish color indicating bacteria growth, it can be used for cooking even after the recommended consumption date has passed. Many also swear by nihonshu baths, so that may be an experiment for the next old bottle of nihonshu.

Do you have a favorite nihonshu or favorite nihonshu story?

  • Daniel says:

    I’m sitting here drinking a cup of general sho-chiku-bai sake that was opened 5-8 months ago in room temperature. (I live in Vancouver, Canada). It’s a perfectly clear solution that tastes fine. My Japanese mom says sake doesn’t go bad. I guess as long as germs don’t enter the bottle then bacteria won’t form, thus no spore form.

  • Cheymacc says:

    I have an opened bottle of nigori that I forgot to put in the fridge and it has been about 24 hours. Is it safe to drink? I don’t mind to much about the taste changing I just don’t want it to get me sick.

    • Daniel says:

      I’m no expert but I think 24 hours would be fine in room temperature albeit the white spores will be visible due to the characteristic of ‘Nigori’ (cloudy/percipitated) sake. In short, drink it and enjoy!

  • Fatal Attraction says:

    I have a open bottle of Kikusui perfect snow my wife put in the refrigerator a month ago. Is it ok to drink the rest?

  • Toby B says:

    I have an unopened bottle of Habu Sake that’s 22 years old, don’t think I’m gonna drink it!

  • maulinator says:

    Try Jozen-mizunogotoshi. Or Kubota, which is really famous, man-jyu or sen-jyu, the “tsuu” prefer sen-jyu.

  • Alexandra Grandmougin says:

    I do have a favourite Nihonshu (one among many would be more accurate). Dassai from Yamaguchi-ken. See website here http://www.asahishuzo.ne.jp/en/

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