SAKE TASTING

In this guide we will break down the aspects of tasting sake from the basics to how to evaluate a sake.

THE BASICS

To simplify sake tasting it is easy to start with five major categories of sake flavors. Once one is comfortable categorizing the sake into one of these given categories, then the next step will be to assess the sake.

BASIC CATEGORIES:

LIGHT AND SMOOTH = Sake that is mild, refreshing, and easy drinking.

FRUITY AND FLORAL = Sake that is highly aromatic, balanced, and round.

RICH AND EARTHY = Sake that is full bodied, mouthwatering, earthy, gamey, and slightly bitter.

POWERFUL AND SAVORY = Sake that is uniquely rich, complex, savory, and spicy.

LUSCIOUS AND SWEET = Sake that is sweet to the taste.

A GENERALIZATION OF BASIC CATEGORIES IN RELATION TO SAKE STYLES:

This is a basic generalization, there are many sakes that stray outside of or are a blend of these basic categories:

LIGHT AND SMOOTH = Junmai and Honjōzō

FRUITY AND FLORAL = Ginjō and Daiginjō

RICH AND EARTHY = Kimoto and Yamahai

POWERFUL AND SAVORY = Koshu

LUSCIOUS AND SWEET = Nigori and Sparkling Sake

ASSESSING SAKE:

Sake tasting, known as kikizake, follows similar methods for tasting other alcoholic beverages. However, with its own unique terminology and focuses. Vessels for assessing sake range from ceramic to glass depending on the situation (discussed further in the storage and service guide). Temperature is crucial when assessing sake, it is important to have all sake at the same temperature, which when judging, is recommended to be 70°F (21°C). When assessing sake it is important to focus on three major aspects starting with the sight, moving to the nose, and finishing with the palate.

SIGHT

When inspecting the sight of a sake it is important to address clarity and color, along with the absence or presence of effervescence.

CLARITY:

Sake is clear with the exception of cloudy sake, known as nigori. Nigori sake will have light to thick sediment depending on the production methods (discussed in more detail in the styles and specialty breakdown). 

COLOR:

Carbon filtering is a common technique used to create a clear colored sake. Sake that is not carbon filtered typically varies in color depending on the style. The lighter and more delicate the style, such as a daiginjō, the clearer the color. The richer the style, such as a honjōzō, the more color the sake may have. Another aspect that affects the color of sake is age. Sake will progress through this color spectrum from youth to maturity: YELLOW-GREEN to YELLOW to GOLD to AMBER. Cloudy sake, known as nigori, will have a pure white to off white color.

EFFERVESCENCE:

The majority of all sake is non-effervescent. When assessing the bubbles of sake the size should be addressed. Freshly pressed sake often has a slight presence of small, delicate bubbles. Sparkling sake will range from delicate, fine bubbles in bottle fermented sparkling sake to large bubbles in tank fermented sparkling sake.

NOSE

Sake aromatics range depending on production techniques, desired sake grade, and brewery style. Make a note if the sake is showing vibrancy of youth or matured aromatics. Note if the aromatics are subdued or pungent or somewhere in between. Below are the common aromatics found in sake:

GINJŌ-KA AROMAS:

Ginjō-ka aromas are the fruity and floral aromas commonly found in premium style sakes such as:

Apricot, banana, blossom, cherry, lavender, lemon, lime, lychee, melon, orange, pear, pineapple, rose, strawberry

KŌJI AROMAS:

Kōji aromas are typically only found in sakes with a high percentage of kōji used during fermentation, this imparts aromas of roasted chestnuts.

LACTIC AROMAS:

Lactic aromas, commonly found in traditional starters such as kimoto and yamahai, are:

Cheese, cream, evaporated milk, milk, sour cream, yogurt

RICE AROMAS:

Some rice varieties are known for imparting particular aromas in the sake. Otherwise common aromas are:

Bran, cooked rice, porridge, rice flour, steamed rice, toasted rice

YEAST AROMAS:

Each yeast has myriad of aromatic compounds it can add to the sake. The most common are:

Apple and melon aromas = created by ethyl caproate

Banana and pear aromas = created by isoamyl acetate

NON-FRUIT AROMAS:

These aromas can come from the rice variety, yeast selection, production methods, and many other things:

Anise, basil, cedar, cinnamon, clove, fenugreek, grass, hay, lemongrass, mint, nutmeg, pepper, rosemary, tea

SAVORY AROMAS (AMINO ACIDS):

Higher amounts of nutrients in the vat result in higher amounts of amino acids in the sake, creating aromas of:

Miso, mushroom, roasted meat, pickled vegetables, seaweed, soy

UNPASTEURIZED AROMAS:

Unpasteurized sakes are bright, vibrant and lively with aromas such as:

Bubblegum, cantaloupe juice, cotton candy, marshmallow, mochi

AGING AROMAS:

Aging aromas are not typically sought after, unless purposely producing koshu to create aromas of:

Brine, caramel, chocolate, coffee, dried fruit, honey, maple syrup, molasses, nuts, olives

PALATE

On the palate we look to see if the flavors match the aromas on the nose along with assessing the structural components of sweetness, umami, body, acidity, balance, texture, and finish.

SWEETNESS:

Sweetness in sake ranges from bone dry to sweet. Sake producers often label the Sake Meter Value (SMV), or nihonshu-do, which indicates the specific gravity of the sake. The typical range is -3 to +12, the average being +4, however, many sakes stray outside of this range. The memory trick to lock in is: the higher (+) the number, the drier the sake. Perception of sweetness can be altered by many things such as acidity, alcohol, umami, etc. It is important to remember this number indicates the specific gravity of the sake and is only a guideline for sweetness. However, a general guide to follow is:

BONE DRY (KARAKUCHI) = SMV >+6

DRY = 0 to +6

OFF DRY = -6 to 0

MEDIUM DRY = SMV -12 to -6

MEDIUM SWEET = SMV -20 to -12

SWEET (AMAKUCHI) = SMV <-20

UMAMI:

The higher amounts of nutrients in the vat results in more savory flavors, known as umami, in the sake such as:

Miso, mushroom, roasted meat, pickled vegetables, seaweed, soy

BODY:

Body ranges in sake from light to full and is affected by polishing, sweetness, alcohol, etc. A general guide to follow is:

LIGHT BODY = Ginjō and Daiginjō

MODERATE BODY = Junmai and Honjōzō

FULL BODY = Kimoto and Yamahai

ACIDITY:

Acid in sake is difficult to calibrate for those who have prior wine training. Sake ranges from 4.1-4.7 pH whereas wine ranges from 3-4pH. High acid in sake is roughly equivalent to medium acid in wine. A general guide to follow is:

LOW ACIDITY = Ginjō and Daiginjō

MODERATE ACIDITY = Junmai and Honjōzō

HIGH ACIDITY = Kimoto and Yamahai

BALANCE:

A simple yes or no question. Is the sake in balance or is there something sticking out like a sore thumb? If a sake is out of balance it is referred to as ZATSUMI.

TEXTURE:

How does the sake feel on the palate? Common descriptors are:

CREAMY, RICH, SILKY, SMOOTH, VELVETY

FINISH:

How long do you taste the sake after it has left the palate? Any lingering characteristics?

KIRE = Crisp and clean

NIGAMI = Hints of bitterness

SHIBUMI = Astringent (chewy)

TANREI KARAKUCHI = Light, refreshing, and dry

CONCLUSION:

What is the overall perception of the sake?

JUKUSHU = Aromatic and powerful

JUNSHU = Subdued aromatics, rich and powerful

KUNSHU = Aromatic and light

NOJUN = Rich, complex, and graceful

SOSHU = Simple and easy to drink

SHIRINPIN = Pleasantly powerful and persistent

 

SAKE FAULTS

If a sake is not stored properly the sake can become faulty. Below are common faults to be aware of when assessing sake:

HINE-KA:

"Out of Condition" resulting from a sake that has been improperly stored or aged too long resulting in aromas of caramel, toffee, pickled or rotten vegetables.

NAMA-HINE-KA:

An out of condition unpasteurized sake due to lack of refrigeration resulting in aromas of malt and cured meat.

OXIDATION:

The bottle has been opened and exposed to oxygen which results in diminished, stale, nutty aromas and a darkened color.

 

LIGHT DAMAGE:

If the bottle has been damaged by light exposure it can develop aromas of sulphur, musk, or burnt hair.

MICROBIAL SPOILAGE:

Sake, especially unpasteurized to sake, is sensitive to microbial spoilage which will result in aromas of eggs, garlic, onion, rancid cheese, sour milk, or sweat.

UNHYGIENIC BREWING:

Many off-flavors can occur if hygiene is not taken into consideration during sake production, such as:

Butter: caused by a lactic acid, known as diacetyl.

Soap and cabbage: caused by caproic acid.

Cork taint: caused by improperly cleaned wooden vessels and 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA).

Acetone or paint thinner: caused by volatile acidity.