Sake – The iconic Japanese wine
Sake to Japan is like Champagne to France and Scotch to Scotland. However, this famous Japanese alcoholic drink is still unfamiliar to many people. And if you ask 5 people “what does Sake taste like”, you may have 5 different answers for the question.
Still, there are certain ways to describe the flavor profile of Sake by knowing the fundamentals of its making process. And besides getting the answer for the title question, you will also find out the best way to taste this iconic Japanese wine.
How is Sake made?
While common understanding often refers Sake to a kind of wine, Japanese people actually just consider it as an alcoholic drink. Sake consists of 3 major ingredients: rice, water, and mold Aspergillus Oryzae – a.k.a koji. The making of Sake basically goes through 3 big steps.
First, the short-grain rice is refined until white. And to make a quality Sake, the quality of rice and the purity of water mean a lot. The brewing process is complicated itself, but the ingredient collecting process also demands a lot of hard work and meticulosity.
Then, the Sake makers combine rice, water with yeast and koji. Put it simply; Koji is a microorganism integral to Sake-making. When mold Aspergillus Oryzae reacts with the rice’s starch, the yeast feast on the sugar from the reaction.
Afterward, they steam the mixture. And the more outer shells of the rice grains are removed, the sweeter the flavor will become. When the fermentation finishes, they filter Sake, pasteurize and bottle it. Different regions Japan may have a slightly different ways of making Sake, resulting in the difference in taste and aroma.
What does Sake taste like?
80% of Sake is water, and it doesn’t have tannins. Thus, Sake is less acidic than Western wine. Specifically, it tastes more profile and a little bit sweeter. Also, the taste of bitterness and savoriness seems to be milder, keeping it away from the overwhelming heat when you first taste it.
To describe the sweet/dry level of Sake, Japanese people has the Sake Meter Value. The brewers use this measurement to determine the gravity of the Sake. It can range from -5 to +10, with +2 is the neutral point. And as Sake commonly stays on the lower end of the scale, it tends to taste sweet.
Sake has the smell of the fermented rice. This fragrance is normally prominent in Sake. However, these days people tend to add fragrances of fruits, flowers, or rice-like elements. The smell is gentle and remains just a few minutes after it’s outside of the bottle.
Many people describe the smell of Sake as nutty, fruity, flowery and caramel-like. Also, it is a bit less fragrant than wine, as Sake is more of a drink of taste than an aroma. Today Sake comes with both rice-pure flavor and rice-fruit-flower flavor. For those who don’t want the distraction of the floral essence, there are still many choices for them.
Feeling of alcohol
The alcohol level in Sake ranges from 10% to 15%, making it a little bit more alcoholic than wine. However, its impact does not seem to be as explosive as wine. In fact, the initial impression of a Sake depends on many factors such as water’s pH, alcohol content, acid content, type of rice, and milling rate.
The acidity in Sake is also not quite puckering. Even though there are some certain types of Sake that bring the strong flavor of sourness, most of them are quite sweet and delicate at the end.
Presence – The feel of mouth and the graininess against the tongue. Sake, in general, is a light beverage, even in comparison with the lightest kind of wine. It is quite unassuming, light, and smooth.
Earthiness – The more aged the Sake is, the tarter, darker and danker it becomes. This factor may not be significant in most Sake products because people these days tend to commercially manufacture this drink.
Tail – The after taste of Sake. Commonly, the feel of Sake lingers a little bit after we drink it. However, the acidity and sweetness do not stubbornly remain at the tongue. Instead, they vanish slowly, leaving behind a light Sake flavor in your throat for a few minutes.
How to taste Sake?
You can drink Sake warm or cold. Notice that it should just be warm, not hot. Serving Sake at tea temperature will probably obliterate its delicate flavor. And as a rule of thumb, the finer the Sake is, the more sensitive it is to the high temperature.
Use a proper glass
To experience Sake traditionally, you’d better drink it in an Ocho ko – the small ceramic cup. It’s best to have a Janome Choko – A plain white Ocho ko with two blue lines in the bottom of the cup. Using it, you can see the transparency and the color of Sake.
However, one disadvantage of using this cup is that you can barely smell the Sake’s aroma. So if you want to hold the aroma and enjoy it, use a narrow opening glass. It’s also suitable for checking the viscosity of the drink.
Everything comes with pros and cons. And the downside of using glass is it’s hard to compare the colors of different Sake types, which Ocho ko can excellently perform. So depending on your tasting purpose, opt for one that best fits your preference.
Check the color and aroma
Sake in good condition should be quite clear. If you see the tan or brownish tint, it’s likely that the Sake is approaching oxidation. To release the Sake’s aroma, give it some gentle swirl. The smell could be floral, tropical, earthy, smoky, or rice-centric, but not burnt or musty.
Relish its flavor
Tasting Sake is similar to tasting wine. As you take in the aroma, start tasting it by taking a small sip. When bringing the fluid into your mouth, chew it gently, then swallow it allowing the air to be exhaled through your nose.
It’s best if you can take in some air while drinking Sake. It will make the aftertaste more recognizable, and the sweetness lingers on the tongue for longer. As good as pairing it with fruits, you can accommodate Sake in many of your recipes as an alternative to wine. Finally, you can make a cocktail with it, making the flavor more complex and intense.
In the end, the best way to know “what does Sake taste like” is to actually have a sip of it. Take your time and enjoy the taste of Sake. And now you know it’s fine if your answer is different to others’.
As Sake is more of a product of techniques, so it’s not all about relishing the taste but also respecting the labor-intensive making process. Each bottle is elaborately crafted for your enjoyment.