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To the untrained eye, sake tasting might at first look like a very basic art, but there is so much more to it. In fact many Izakaya and special sake shops in Japan spend hours and hours honing their tasting skills so that when you come to call they can find your perfect sake match. Suffice to say there is a method, and while in the world of magic, no magician should ever tell you how their tricks are done, this is not the world of magic, and sake professionals do not subscribe to any such secret code.
While it takes a great deal of experience and skill to peer through the veil of aromas and flavour of the more complexly structured sake, a few pointers is all that is needed to gauge whether a sake will suit your palate or not.
So without further ado, let us introduce the KURAND 4 step beginner’s guide to tasting sake.
Step 1 Checking Colour
Sake tasting is very similar to wine tasting in that it involves the 3 senses: sight, smell, taste.
Before you bring the sake to your lips, you should first analyze the colour.
Hang on! You might be thinking, isn’t sake clear? Well yes, but if you look closer, you may be able to make out a tints of green or yellow and sometimes gold. Depending on the style, the intensity of these tints varies from subtle to medium to deep. The best vessel to analyze a sake’s colour, like with wine, is a transparent glass — like a wine glass, but sake does have its own answer to the wine glass in the form of something called a Kikichoko (lit: tasting cup). This Kikichoko has two blue concentric circles painted in the bottom to aid your ability to spot variations in gradation or colour, although it can take time to master use of this cup and that’s why we recommend the wine glass instead. As you might expect, having the right lighting is very important; we suggest natural light — avoid spotlights or strong UV light. As well as the colour, you should also look to see whether there are any particles in the sake which might suggest a cloudy sake or even that there is a fault with it.
Did you know that the sake that comes out of the press at the end of production is actually inherently gold? Brewers make the sake clear by passing it through various stages of fining and fine-filtering it. Also, sake tends to develop a gold colour as it ages, which is as a result of oxidation. A deeper colour also suggests a higher level of umami producing glutamic acid and in general a richer flavour.
Step 2 Checking the Nose
Next we turn out attention to what wine lovers commonly refer to as the nose. We are of course talking about the sake’s aroma.
Certain styles of sake have a fruity or floral aroma called a ginjo aroma which is produced when esters are formed by fermenting at low temperature. Typical ginjo aromas include pear, apple, melon, aniseed, bubblegum; generally fruity aromas on the riper side.
Aged sake also has a very particular aroma profile which may include some of the more stranger notes of mushroom, gibier, toffee and maybe even bacon or Japanese tsukemono pickles. The complexity of the profile generally depends on the length of ageing.
Not all ginjo give up their aroma freely and it may take several sniffs and a well a trained nose to discern exact aromas. This can be made easier by again using a wine glass with a deep bowl and narrow aperture as well as giving the sake a swirl by rotating the glass with your finger on the base a few times. Also, when tasting several sake, reset your sense of smell by giving your skin between your wrist and elbow a little sniff (we are not joking, this is how the PROs actually do it). Sometimes, higher alcohol sake can kill your sense of smell, but resetting will help overcome this.
Finally, the temperature is also very important. As you chill sake, the aroma tends to go into slumber, but you can awaken it again by bringing it up to room temperature by cupping warm hands around the cup or glass or just leaving the glass for a few minutes.
Step 3 Checking the Palate
And finally the palate which is basically just another word for the overall flavour profile of the sake.
The sake palate is made up primarily of 4 flavours. Note, we are not suggesting for a moment that there isn’t more to sake than these 4 flavours; simply that these are the 4 main ones: sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and of course the umami factor (savoury flavours). Sake generally has less acidity and bitterness than wine but more sweetness and umami. You might also include the kick from the alcohol if it has one.
The strength of each of these flavours in comparison with the other is what determines the structure and more importantly, the balance of the sake.
The primary flavours / aromas you detect are called the Fukumika in Japanese and are what tell you whether a sake is dry or sweet, whether it’s sharp and introvert or wild and extrovert, whether it’s a full-bodied chap or more refined relaxed one. In other words, the Fukumika is your first impression of the sake, the first impact. While you shouldn’t necessarily judge a sake by its Fukumika, it’s normally a pretty good place to start.
After the Fukumika, pucker your lips and take a few short, audible slurps of air a bit like you do when you eat udon in Japan (you slurp to cool the noodles down as they are very hot). This technique aerates the sake and spreads the flavours around your tongue. Use your tongue to swirl the sake around the mouth to make sure you pick up each flavour. The age-old myth of the tongue map; the theory that certain parts of the tongue are more sensitive to certain flavours, is precisely that: a myth, so the swirling isn’t to enhance a particular flavour. It’s just to make sure that all your taste receptors come into contact with the sake.
The sake should be in your mouth at least 5-10 seconds before swallowing during which time you aim to analyze the 4 main flavour components and the general profile. Depending on the complexity and structure of the sake, it might take a few sips to make an informed judgement . To pick up specific flavours, try rolling the sake across your tongue a few times. This helps shoot the aromas up towards your Olfactory Sensors at the back of the mouth below the nose because it is these, not the taste-buds on the tongue, that pick up specific aromas / flavours such as apple, pear, etc. If you don’t believe us, try eating an apple with a peg on your nose. Can you taste apple? Or just the sweetness and acidity?
Ginjo sake will normally have a much more refined, elegant, subtle palate than junmai. Junmai tends to feel quite heavy on the tongue — this is body.
When tasting many sake, professionals will normally spit most of the sake out so that they stay relatively sober and focused, perhaps swallowing a bit to check the finish.
Step 4 Checking the Finish
Finally ,we come to the finish.
Unlike with wine, the finish of sake is not directly indicative of its quality. An excellent sake can have a short or long finish. In fact, it can take just as much skill to make sake with a short finish, if not more.
There are many words to refer to the finish; tail, length, after-flavour are probably the 3 most commonly used ones. In Japanese, it is called the Modorika (lit: the return aroma). The finish is basically the pleasant flavours that stay after you have swallowed the sake. The longer they remain, the longer the finish. Food pairing sake tends to have a shorter finish so that your palate is clean for the next dish. If the flavours and aromas vanish almost like magic within a split second of swallowing with a short distinctive cut, this is referred to as the kire in Japanese or sometimes as a crisp finish in English. It takes a great deal of skill to create the kire. The kire is one characteristic of a style of sake from Niigata called Tanrei Karakuchi. A lot of honjozo and ginjo have the kire. If the sake uses a slightly higher, refreshing acidity to wash away the end flavours this is called a wash. Sometimes higher acidity can also be used to stop a sweet sake from leaving behind a horrible sticky finish which wine drinkers refer to as a cloying finish. Sometimes a little sting caused by higher alcohol is desirable and some people like it when sake leaves a trail of bitterness. It all comes down to personal preference.
When judging the quality of a sake, think about how all the different elements you have picked up in the tasting work in the overall structure. Does a crisp finish at the end of a very heavy, rich sake seem like the right finish for that style? Or does that element of surprise actually warrant extra marks? There is no right or wrong answer.
Well that wraps up our beginner’s guide to sake tasting. Why not print this out and bring it along the next time you come to KURAND and impress our staff!
We look forward to welcoming you very soon!