One of the first questions that pops into the headers of future connoisseurs of Japan's distinctive national beverage is: What does sake taste like?
Get all the answers you need with this quick & easy sake flavors guide...
What is sake?
Sake is an alcoholic beverage that's considered the national drink of Japan.
Many colloquially call sake "rice wine," but that simple definition doesn't begin to explain the complexity of this fermented beverage. And with a production history spanning over two and half millennia, it's no surprise!
The main ingredients of sake include steamed rice, koji, water, and yeast. In less refined sake, alcohol is also added to "smooth" out the flavor profile.
Sake tastes & flavors
Much like with wine or beer, attempting to nail down the flavor profile of sake in a few words in impossible.
Depending on the type of sake, there's a wide range of tastes & flavors you'll get to experience during tastings.
In general, sake has a slightly sweet flavor. It tends to be lighter and smoother than beer, and delivers less of a "punch" than other spirits and wines. (And if you've ever wondered "Is sake a wine?", the simple, yet surprising, answer is: No, it's not.)
On the nose, sake often features a fruity and sometimes slightly perfume-like floral aroma. Upon pouring, you may also detect a faint savory smell. This is a result of the koji, a special mold used in sake production to convert the rich starches into sugar for fermentation.
Unlike stronger spirits, sake doesn't have a "burning" after-taste. It tends to be far less stringent on the palate than vodka or whiskey.
Thanks to its high levels of glutamic acid, sake has a full-bodied profile. It's more acidic than wine with a richer, more umami flavor.
Sake flavor profiles
The most important factor in determining a particular sake's flavor profile is where it falls on the sweetness to dryness spectrum.
This is measured by the product's density, using a number known as sake meter value (SMV) or nihonshudo. A higher nihonshudo indicates a drier, less dense sake; a lower SMV points to a sweeter, denser drink.
There's also an interplay between the sake meter value and the sake's acidity. A higher level of acidity can create a drier sake independent of the SMV.
Aside from the general flavors, each of the different varieties of sake feature their own flavour profiles. These include:
- Honjozo: A less-refined sake variety that's generally smooth and light-bodied.
- Junmai: A slightly more refined sake that's slightly more acidic than non-junmai classifications and offers a more savory rice-like taste.
- Daiginjo: A premium sake that's incredibly smooth and complex. If you're tasting some of the best junmai daiginjo sake, it's best enjoyed chilled to squeeze out all the most subtle flavors.
- Ginjo: A more "polished" sake that's light but features more complex acidity with fruity & floral flavors and aromas. Like above, the best junmai ginjo sake tastes best when drank cold.
- Futsushu: Often also called table sake, this is one of the less-refined varieties of sake. It features a more earthy flavor profile and a less smooth finish.
- Nigori: A unfiltered sake that leans towards a sweeter taste profile. The finish on top-rated nigori sakes is creamier than other varieties.
How to taste sake
Like any serious budding connoisseur, one of the first things you'll want to master is how to drink & taste sake like a pro.
Sake can be enjoyed both warm and cold.
In general, however, when you're drinking one of the top-rated sakes, you'll want to conduct your taste tests cold. The highest-grade sake brands are best enjoyed chilled.
When starting your sake taste test, the first thing you'll want to do is check the color. Like other alcoholic beverages, sake can go bad. And this is not a great place to start a tasting!
With the exception of unfiltered nigori sake, your sake should be clear. If you see any particles floating around or a brownish color, take a hard pass on it and move on.
Taste & aroma
If the color and consistency checks out, pour the sake into a tasting cup. Most experts recommend using a ochoko, a small traditional Japanese ceramic cup designed for sipping sake.
Much like wine tasting, you'll want to swirl the sake around the cup to release the aroma. Place your nose over the tasting cup. Note all the subtle aromas. Is it savory? Fruity? Floral? Earthy?
With a slight inhale, take a small sip of the sake. Swish it around your palate, allowing all the flavors to blossom in your mouth. Swallow gently while exhaling slowly.