Beginner to Japanese sake? One of the first questions that may surface is: What is sake meter value (SMV)?
Sake meter value is a standard measure of sake sweetness and dryness. When choosing between sweet or dry sake, the SMV is often the first point of departure.
That's not to say it's the end-all-be-all of determining sweet (辛口) versus dry (甘口) sake!
Let's dig a little deeper into sake meter value and how it affects the taste of sake with this quick guide.
What is sake meter value (SMV)?
Sake meter value (SMV) measures how dry or sweet a sake is. More specifically, SMV calculates a sake's specific gravity (relative density) at 15ºC based on a modified Heavy Baume scale. (A value of zero compares to the gravity of pure water at 4ºC.)
The Japanese term for sake meter value, nihonshu-do (日本酒度), translates roughly to Japan Alcohol Degree in English. The definition loses something in translation though.
The SMV measures how much sugar and alcohol is left in the sake after brewing. It works on a balanced scale from -15 to +15. An sake with an SMV of 0 would be considered neutral, neither sweet nor dry. A lower negative SMV indicates a sweet sake with less alcohol. A higher positive SMV points to a dry sake with higher alcohol content.
Most sake labels will list the SMV. Average SMVs for the different types of sake include:
- Honjozo: 5.2
- Ginjo: 4.5
- Junmai: 4.2
- Futsushu: 3.9
What is sake acidity?
There's more to sweet sake versus dry sake than just the SMV. To get a clearer picture, you also need to look at sake acidity.
Now's not the time for a sake versus wine debate, but, like wine, sake flavors are complex. And much of that complexity stems from the interplay of the sake meter value and acidity.
Japanese sake contains a number of organic acids including lactic acid, malic acid, and succinic acid. The level of acidity affects the taste of sake. (And could even bestow a few health benefits.)
The higher that acidity level, the drier the sake. The lower the acid levels, the sweeter the sake will taste. These flavor changes happen regardless of the sugar content or the alcohol percentage measured by the SMV.
The balance between acidity and SMV is what helps give the finest Japanese sake brands their unique flavor profiles. Here's a rough sketch of what the interplay between SMV and acidity might look like int:
Sake taste categories
Light & dry
Light & dry sake offers light aromas with a clean & crisp taste. It's a great choice for sake beginners. Many ginjo and junmai ginjo sakes fall into this category. Light & dry sakes pair well with popular Japanese food like sushi and sashimi.
Light & dry sake recommendations:
Light & sweet
Light & sweet sake differs from its drier counterparts by offering most a more aromatic experience. These varieties showcase stronger floral & fruit aromas in the nose. Many daiginjo, junmai daiginjo, and sparkling sakes fall into this category. Their sweeter tastes mix well with fish & seafood like shrimp, squid, or scallops.
Light & sweet sake recommendations:
Rich & dry
With its above-average acidity, rich & dry sake add a layer of complexity over their sweeter, lighter-bodied counterparts. You'll often discover rice and grain-like flavors in their depths. The category spans across al types of sake, with plenty of junmai and junmai daiginjo in the mix. Rich & dry sakes are a great companion to meat-heavy mains.
Rich & dry sake recommendations
Rich & sweet
The boldest taste category, rich & sweet sake shines with complex fruity flavors and full-bodied texture. Many nigori sakes and flavored sakes compose the mix. They make a wonderful addition to umami-centric main dishes & cheese appetizers.
Rich & sweet sake recommendations: