Eat-Japan All About Sake

Sake Flavours

Sake Basics

The most important aspect of sake is of course, the taste. If you’ve only ever experienced inexpensive futsushu (regular sake), served piping hot, then you may well be unaware of the full range of charms and delicate flavours this drink has to offer. That’s not to say that futsushu should be dismissed, or that sake shouldn’t be heated. There are a variety of futsushu that can be enjoyed and many types of sake can actually benefit from being heated as this can round out the flavours. Premium sake and in particular ginjoshu varieties are however, generally considered to offer a broader and more subtle range of flavours and aromas, with ginjoshu itself being characterised as lighter, sweeter, fruitier and more flowery than other variants. When the sake is served slightly chilled, these flavours and aromas can be appreciated more fully.

The various combinations of tastes and aromas in sake can be just as complex as those in wine. Whilst the best way to get to know the characteristics of different sakes is to taste as many as possible, it can be useful to consider a few different ways of approaching sake tasting.

Armed with a little knowledge of what to look out for will go a long way to understanding sake flavours.

The five flavours

Japanese tasters often assess a particular sake in terms of its go-mi, or five flavours. These are karami (dryness), nigami, (bitterness), shibumi (astringency or tartness), amami (sweetness) and sanmi (acidity). This system is derived from an ancient Chinese philosophy whereby consuming all five flavours ensures development of the five senses and five types of internal energy. Though there will be countless other flavours to be encountered with a certain drink, as a starting point this approach provides a manageable number of components to identify. Another more recent development in describing the taste of sake has been in the use of the term umami. Described variously as deliciousness, savouriness or meatiness, umami is caused by certain amino acids, in particular glutamic acid. It occurs naturally in a number of foodstuffs, including some sake.

Renowned sake critic and journalist Haruo Matsuzaki has developed the idea of using flavour components to characterise a sake, and has formulated a sake tasting flavour wheel that invites drinkers to put each sake in one of eleven categories depending on the overriding flavour characteristic. Matsuzaki has not only identified what he sees as the eleven key distinctions into which most sake can be categorised, but has also provided advice on how each type of sake should be served, and in what context, doing all the hard work so you don’t have to.

Sake Flavour Chart

Sake Flavour Chart

Mellow: Found among junmaishu, ginjoshu and junmai ginjoshu, this sake has a slightly rich, full flavour that spreads pleasantly over the tongue.

Soft: Sake with a soft profile that is neither too dry nor too sweet, has few off flavours and includes certain ginjoshu, junmai ginjoshu and honjozoshu.

Dry: Typified by certain ginjoshu and honjozoshu, this category of sake has a clean, crisp and dry flavour.

Fruity: Fruity sake is best characterized by its aroma, and is found most readily among daiginjoshu, ginjoshu and junmai ginjoshu.

Fresh:
Typified by certain daiginjoshu, and in particular nama daiginjo, this sake is noticeably fresh and smooth on the palate.

Light: Sake that is generally lower in alcohol, but often higher in acidity to counterbalance.
Sweet: Sake in this category has a rich, sweet flavour, and is often junmaishu, or yondan shikomi, which has had additional steamed rice added.

Full-Bodied: Often found amongst junmaishu, this sake has a robust, earthy character and often high acidity.

Rich: This category displays qualities such as great depth, high acidity and bitterness, and includes junmaishu, as well as yamahai and kimoto varieties.

Aged: Sake that has been aged, and consequently displays an inimitable solidity and richness.

Other: Sake whose flavour is overwhelmingly influenced by one particular factor, such as taruzake (keg sake), nigorizake and those made using special brewing methods.


by Haruo Matsuzaki

Sake tasting for the specialists

While most people drink sake for pleasure, to some it’s much more than that.

Sake tasting is known as kikizake in Japanese, and is taken very seriously, particularly at professional sake tasting events such as the shinshu kanpyokai (New Sake Appraisal Competitions) organised each spring by the Japanese Ministry of Taxation. Those who sample and appraise sake professionally don’t just rely on taste, but use a range of the senses to get a fuller appreciation of the drink. The clarity and colour of the sake is assessed with the help of specially made, white porcelain cups called kiki-choko that have two blue circles on the bottom, used to gauge the clarity of the sake. Even the sound of the sake as it’s poured can be instructive to the well-trained ear. Whilst taste is of course the most important sense used when appreciating sake, without the sense of smell it would be impossible to taste properly.

Temperature

Temperature affects the taste of certain sake, not only because the nature of the drink itself differs as the temperature is raised or lowered, but also because the tastes that the human tongue can identify vary according to temperature. Our tongues are apparently most sensitive to taste sensations at 21 degrees Celsius, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the best temperature to consume all sakes, as allowing some tastes to come to the fore and downplaying others may improve a certain drink.

Of the five tastes known in Japanese as go-mi, which are often referred to in sake tasting, amami, or sweetness, is most detectable when sake is around body temperature, or hito-hada in Japanese, but is much less discernable when the drink is chilled. Sanmi, or acidity, is understated in chilled sake, but remains a constant presence anywhere between 10 and 40 degrees Celsius, while nigami (bitterness) becomes more difficult to detect the warmer a sake gets.

Taste in harmony: What to look for in Sake

Aroma

Just as with wine, there is a lot of enjoyment and information to be gained from considering the smell of a particular sake. A myriad of different aromas may be detected in the bouquet, from the smell of rice through to more exotic aspects, including various kinds of fruit and flowers. In lower quality sake however, the overriding aroma may be that of alcohol, or a yeasty smell caused by deficiencies in the production process. It’s worth noting that the aroma of a certain sake doesn’t change that much at room temperature or below, even if a change in temperature within this range affects the taste. Heating the drink however will have a considerable effect on the aroma, and this is why heated sake (known as atsukan) can have a prominent smell of alcohol.

Balance

One of the criteria most frequently mentioned when considering sake is whether or not the overall flavour of the drink is balanced. The word ‘balance’ has actually been borrowed by the Japanese to use in this context, with the phrase baransu ga torete iru used to mean that the various tastes within the drink do not overpower each other, but exist in harmony. When deciding if a certain sake is balanced or not, it can be useful to refer to the five tastes of karami, amami, shibumi, nigami and sanmi, and decide if they are all present and if any one or two overpower the rest. Interestingly, while qualities such as floweriness and fruitiness are generally prized, particularly in premium ginjoshu, some might say that if these qualities come too much to the fore, they will upset the balance of the drink and overpower other flavours.

Tasting Terminology

The Japanese use a plethora of phrases and terminology to describe the various qualities of sake, and although by no means essential,
learning a few choice phrases can help you to express yourself when tasting sake!

Some frequently used terms can be expressed just as easily in English as in Japanese. These include the opposing pairs of karakuchi (dry) and amakuchi (sweet), tanrei (delicate) and hojun (rich), and karui (light) and omoi (heavy). Meanwhile nigiyaka is used to describe a lively sake, a liveliness that could be provided by freshness or an array of competing flavours.

Moving on to the intermediate level, kuchiatari ga ii is used when a sake imparts a pleasant impression when it hits the drinker’s tongue. If the taste of the drink goes on to spread over the tongue in a pleasing manner, then the phrase fukurami ga ii may be appropriate. Marumi ga aru denotes a well-rounded sake with lots of flavour components and elements, while a simpler, cleaner drink may be described as hosoi, or narrow. Torotto shite iru is used to describe a sake that is mellow and relaxed, whereas tsun-to-kuru denotes one that, by contrast, stimulates the senses with a sharp flavour imparted by either acidity or alcohol content. And of course the finish of a sake is all-important. A drink that runs down the throat in a pleasant manner is described as nodogoshi ga ii, while a clean and generally pleasant finish is described as kire ga ii.

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