Sake Tasting Parameters
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| Junmai-shu | Honjozo | Ginjo-shu | Daiginjo
1. Fragrance (none to fragrant)
Some sake has a very prominent fragrance, especially a lot of premium
daiginjo sake. Embedded in this aromatic package can be fruit fragrances of all kinds, flowers, rice-like elements, and anything in between. Sometimes it's gentle and is only there for a few seconds, other
times it can be strong and have staying power of a few days.
Others have almost no perceptible smell whatsoever. Quiet, gentle and straightforward, sake like this survives on its flavor and presence alone.
Neither end of this spectrum is inherently better than the other. More often then not, the fragrance of a sake is a function of the style of that
particular region, which it tied in to water, rice and cuisine. Basically assume that the result was not by accident, but was precisely what the
toji (head brewer) wanted to make. Both styles have their fans and their times and places. The food (or lack thereof), the company and the mood will all contribute to experience.
As will your preferences. Fruity, flowery smelling sake that approaches wine in style can be just what you are looking for. Then again, perhaps wine wannabee sake is not what you are foraging for, and
a more settled, rice-like flavor with no distracting floral essences is more down your alley.
2. Impact (quiet to explosive)
This is related to the initial impression of a sake immediately after you
taste it. Known as "kuchi-atari" in Japanese, the impact a sake has is affected by many things in its production. The pH of the water, the acid
content, alcohol content, rice type, milling rate and specific gravity all have a say.
Some sake is soft and gentle, barely making its presence known. Some
awakens you out of slumber with an acidity or sweetness exploding across your palate. Some spreads flavor into each nook and cranny of your mouth, and other sake makes a narrow and clean beeline for your
Acidity can make a sake spread like wildfire, and alcohol can light up your entire palate -often times overly so (which is why most sake is
watered down from the naturally occurring 19-20 percent alcohol to 15-16%). Softer water won't give you the crisp slap that hard water will. As
both types have their pros and cons, let your palate find your preference.
3. Sweet/Dry (sweet to dry)
Although seemingly very simple, this dimension of a sake can be difficult
to express and convey. On the most elementary level, this is tied in with the "nihonshu-do," also known as the Sake Meter Value (SMV).
The nihonshu-do is a measure of the specific gravity of a sake, or the ratio of the density of the sake in relation to the density of pure water.
Grossly oversimplifying - although it will do nicely for our purposes here - the more unfermented sugar in the sake the more dense it is. The scale
used by brewers (it is open-ended, but generally runs from -5 to +10 or so) has numbers assigned in such a way that lower or negative numbers
indicate increasing sweetness, and higher positive numbers indicate drier sake. (This is why my scale has sweet on the left and dry on the right; I
have attempted to maintain a sense of logic with the nihonshu-do scale.) Originally, 0 was considered to be neutral. However, as perceptions and
preferences have changed drastically over the last few decades, +2 or so is considered to be neutral.
Back to sweet versus dry. The nihonshu-do is far from being the only
factor affecting the impression of sweet or dry. In particular, acidity plays a huge role in our sensations. Sake with higher acidity will generally taste drier than it actually may be based on the numbers alone. The
other side of the coin is that a sake with lower than usual levels of acid can taste a tad sweeter than their nihonshu-do would indicate. Temperature is another contributing factor. In my humble opinion,
sweetness and dryness in sake is much more temperature-dependent than in wine, if only by virtue of sake's narrow bandwidth of overall flavor.
Just a few degrees of change can make a sake seem sweeter or drier. Accompanying food has a say in the formula, as does whether or not you
are tasting other sake, and if so the flavor of the previous sake comes into play. In the end, sweet or dry is a precariously subjective assessment, and nihonshu-do is at best a ballpark indication of this
Acidity (soft to puckering)
This is refreshingly simple after the last one. Well, almost. Acidity in sake is expressed as the number of ml of a base chemical was needed
to neutralize 10ml of sake. Just keep in mind that the number is usually 0.8 to 1.7. This is not a huge range, and the important thing to keep in
mind is that the perception of acidity is not always directly correlated to the actual acid content. A sweeter, rougher sake may not taste as acidic as a drier sake with the same acidity.
More practically, acidity can make its presence felt most noticeably at the beginning and at the end - and in between it helps spread everything about. Sake with higher acidity often stands up better to oilier
foods like tempura or oilier fish (raw or cooked!). Rich flavored or rather salty side dishes may not need all that acid, and in fact will work better with a lower-acidity sake.
5. Presence (unassuming to full)
This could also be referred to as body, or even richness. Sake is in general a light beverage. Even compared to the lightest of wines, sake is
quite light. "Presence" refers to the mouth feel, the graininess against your tongue, the viscosity or lack thereof in a sake. It can range from
unassuming, quiet, light, airy and delicate on one end, to full-bodied, fat, heavy, thick, and ripe on the other. There are sake that are smooth and airy and sake that are rich and creamy.
Naturally, the actual difference between one sake and another is a bit more subtle than the words here may convey; the spectrum is not all that
wide. But there are very real differences between one sake and another in terms of the presence they command in the audience of your palate.
As with the other parameters, this naturally depends on a myriad of factors, and the culprits are the same here: water pH and mineral content, acidity, choice of rice, ad infinitum. Note that namazake
(unpasteurized sake) generally has a much more prominent presence than sake that has been pasteurized.
6. Earthiness (delicate to dank)
This particularly interesting axis is more defined by the presence of
heavier elements than by the lack of them. In other words, some sake has elements to the flavor profile that are bitter, dank, tart, dark, and/or
heavy. The best Japanese term is "koku ga aru," although a direct translation will not make it through unscathed. The opposite of this is not
so much light and delicate sake as it is sake that doesn't display these attributes so readily.
Aged sake often has such earthiness as part of its flavor profile. So
does, very generally speaking, sake from the southern part of Japan, although there are a plethora of exceptions. And again, although the connotations of words like earthy and dank may conjure images of a
good 20-year old distilled beverage, the above must be taken within the context of the flavor profile of sake, i.e. delicate and of narrow bandwidth.
Point being, it's subtle, very subtle, but enough to be noticed and worthy of comment.
7. Tail (quickly vanishing to pervasive)
Does the sake flavor jump ship and disappear from your mouth and throat
in an instant, leaving you feeling somewhat rejected? Or, does it linger and hang out, the puckering acidity or stubborn sweetness remaining to be savored for minutes afterwards.
A sake tail (kire in Japanese) can run the gamut from clean, crisp, sharp and vanishing to lingering, puckering and friend-for-life pervasive. Although
all too often the instantaneously-vanishing tail is the favorite, lingering tails can be a godsend, with the right accompaniment and attitude. If a
sake flavor is pleasing, it only makes sense to want it around a little longer.
Naturally, this too is a matter of preference and a related to the external environment.
Jump to Flavor Profiles for Four Main Sake Types
| Junmai-shu | Honjozo | Ginjo-shu | Daiginjo |