In this guide we will break down the aspects of tasting sake from the basics to how to evaluate a sake.
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.
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
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.
When inspecting the sight of a sake it is important to address clarity and color, along with the absence or presence of effervescence.
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).
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.
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.
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 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 are typically only found in sakes with a high percentage of kōji used during fermentation, this imparts aromas of roasted chestnuts.
Lactic aromas, commonly found in traditional starters such as kimoto and yamahai, are:
Cheese, cream, evaporated milk, milk, sour cream, yogurt
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
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
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 sakes are bright, vibrant and lively with aromas such as:
Bubblegum, cantaloupe juice, cotton candy, marshmallow, mochi
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
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 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
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 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
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
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.
How does the sake feel on the palate? Common descriptors are:
CREAMY, RICH, SILKY, SMOOTH, VELVETY
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
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
If a sake is not stored properly the sake can become faulty. Below are common faults to be aware of when assessing sake:
"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.
An out of condition unpasteurized sake due to lack of refrigeration resulting in aromas of malt and cured meat.
The bottle has been opened and exposed to oxygen which results in diminished, stale, nutty aromas and a darkened color.
If the bottle has been damaged by light exposure it can develop aromas of sulphur, musk, or burnt hair.
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.
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.