What Do We Mean by ‘Dry Sake’ Anyway?

dry sake in glass

The scene of someone entering a bar and ordering ‘dry sake’ will be a familiar one for anyone who drinks the beverage, but how many of us have stopped to ask what ‘dry sake’ actually is?

Everyone has different tastes and if one person says it is dry it is dry, but to end the debate there would be a missed opportunity. So then, what kind of palate makes a dry sake? I hope to offer some insight in this article.

So what exactly is dry?

Dry, or Karakuchi  in Japanese, is used to express the spice levels in food. In English, in this case, the word hot is used. This is one concept of the dissection of flavourings. In Japanese, the stimulating flavours that are often found in ingredients like TOGARASHI (red hot chilies), WASABI (horseradish), SHOUGA (ginger) and SANSHOU pepper are all referred to as spicy. In general, they provide a violent stimulus sometimes bordering on unbearable. However, in many cases, such flavours help boost our appetite making the heat worth bearing. Examples where such spices, in particular red hot chilies, are used in large quantities in cooking on a daily basis can be found in various cultures in every corner of the world.

And then you have the word used with sake, dry, used to describe a palate with a lack of residual sugars. The antonym is of course sweet. In the production process of fermented alcoholic beverages like sake, wine etc, the sugars are broken down by a yeast and converted to alcohol, so generally speaking dry sake has a higher volume of alcohol.

In the case of sake, the latter is true.

How did sake come to be referred to as dry?


To begin with, the word dry was not used to describe the flavour of sake, rather used as an antonym of sweet, a sort of industry specific lingo.

However in post war Japan, in an age when a super sticky sweet type of sake called Sanbaijozu was widespread, a so-called non-sweet sake, made by breweries who had protected their time-honored craft, started to make noise and thus the phrase ‘authentic dry type’ began to make its way into TV commercials and gain popularity. Before long, dry type sake had gained a high quality image.

This is in a nutshell how dry sake made its way into the vocabulary of the consumer.

The ‘dry’ in sake refers to non-sweet sake.

Perhaps it would be fair to say then, that for reasons like the above dry sake became regarded as opposite of sweet. Perhaps, but that is quite sketchy. A lot of sakes are not sweet.

The human palate judges sweet and dry based on stimulus such as levels of alcohol, aroma and the balance between acidity and sweetness.

For example, even a strong sweet flavour can taste dry if there are high levels of acidity. Additionally, a lot of the GINJO type sake are dry but strangely that fruity floral ginjo nose tends to make it feel sweeter. Furthermore, the undiluted type of sake GENSHU with its slightly higher alcohol levels has a clean finish which tricks us into thinking it is dry. This can also be said for the types that have plenty of umami and have body that puts umami more to the front of the palate.

Ordering sake at the bar

Incidentally, some people may judge the dryness of sake using the sake meter value, but this is really just a guide. No really, it is just a guide. I strongly recommend anyone who has the habit of using phrases like “can I have a sake with a high SMV” or “can I have a dry sake” at the bar, to reconsider.

Why not try one of the below:

“Relaxing dry”

“Robust dry with umami”

“Feisty weighty dry“

“Simple light dry”

“A dry which would pair with this food”

Being more specific when you order will better translate your order to the bar and will in turn help them to furnish you with a sake that will match your tastes.

That pretty much sums up my article on dry sake.

I hope that our readers will find something useful in this article.

Having learned a little about the way to order sake, please go out and enjoy sake.

Written by Omori Makoto – Sake Ambassador