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Sake is a staple of Japanese culture and cuisine. It is meant to make many kinds of social gatherings a lot more enjoyable. However, just like its Western grape-based counterparts, there is a method to the tasting and consumption of sake that can make it an even more memorable experience.
Here is a comprehensive guide to sake tasting:
Most sake is water-like—transparent and colourless. In some cases, there is a very delicate lemon-green paleness. To examine the colour, pick up the glass of sake and gently tilt the glass to a 45-degree angle against a white background.
Although the natural colour of sake has a slight lemon greenness akin to olive oil, most are clarified with active charcoal and diatomite fining at the finishing stage to make them colourless for stability.
Some sake have a slight haziness in appearance due to small particles or lees. This is common in very fresh and raw sake, which tends to have some extra texture and richness. However, these are quite rare in the UK.
Your sake also may appear differently depending on what kind it is. Nigori is the term for cloudy sake with less presence. Sake is generally coarsely filtered, hence its milky colour. This process provides a rich and creamy texture with sweeter and rice impressions.
Sake with deeper colours such as gold, amber, and even brown tints are called Koshu. Koshu sake are aged and matured longer, and are exceedingly rare. The colours come from the oxidation and caramelisation of sugar and amino acids as caused by the ageing process. This process often provides an umami flavour to the drink.
On the Palate
Flavours in sake are different from Western wines. Sake tends to be much more delicate in terms of acidity and has slightly more sugar. The ABV also ranges between an average of 15-17 per cent.
When tasting, take a small sip of sake in your mouth and roll it over your tongue. Then gently mix with some air and assess the quality of sake. This can help you identify the flavour profiles in the sake.
The Umami in Sake
Umami is a primary taste sensation triggered by the presence of some amino acids. The taste of umami can be described as a savoury deliciousness and is also found in high levels in seaweed and fermented and aged foods. Some examples include mature cheeses, dried mushrooms, and soy sauce.
One unique thing about the sake flavour profile is the presence of umami, which tends to fall under the Junmai category—especially those that use kimoto or yamahai methods for the fermentation starter. Sake that is aged longer also tends to be high in umami.
On average, sake has two to five times more umami than wine or beer, and it harmonises beautifully with umami-rich ingredients.
Due to the higher sugar and alcohol content, sake has a unique texture. When rolling it over your tongue, observe if there is any texture to highlight when tasting sake—creamy, smooth, soft, velvety, or mouth-coating are all common to premium sake.
A lingering and long-lasting finish could be one of the indications of the quality of Western wines, whereas, in the world of sake, a drink with a shorter, clean finish can speak of its great quality.
Kire is a Japanese term for a particular kind of clean, crisp, cleansing finish. Sake with kire appears to vanish entirely from the mouth. When sake with kire finish partnered with food, the cleansing effect acts rather like a sorbet, removing flavours and cleansing the palate. A kire finish takes great skill to achieve, only found in premium sake.
Just like win and many other alcoholic beverages, sake needs specific storage conditions and practices to ensure it lasts longer and maintains its quality, such as:
As Sake can be drunk at a wide range of temperatures, those temperatures are expressed by ten poetic Japanese phrases based on the theoretical meanings. Even a small temperature difference can add different colours and impressions of the sake flavours.
Less aromatic sake such as Honjozo or Junmai can be enjoyed widely from chilled, room temperature to warm or hot, but richer or longer-matured sake with higher umami content such as Kimoto or Yamahai Junmai tend to produce joyful savoury flavours and excellent textures at 45–55° C.
Sake can be a great addition to any social gathering, but there is more to it than meets the eye. If you want to figure out how to make your consumption of sake more in-depth, check out our sake sets at Sake Shoten and tune in to part two of this sake tasting guide. We bring exclusive and world-class sake to the UK.