For those new to sake, learning to distinguish the subtle nuances in the flavor of various brews can feel like a daunting task. When evaluating sake, professionals consider the balance of sweetness and acidity, the body and the finish, in addition to the drink’s specific aromas and flavors. Having judged sake at the International Wine Challenge in London this April — which involved sampling around 80 varieties a day and making notes on each entry — I can confirm that tasting at the professional level is indeed a difficult job.
But you need not be able to perform an in-depth analysis of sake in order to enjoy it. To help me with some tasting tips for beginners, I sat down with sake and wine sommelier Kaoru Izuha, winner of the Kikisake-shi World Championship, a sake-tasting competition organized by the Sake Service Institute (SSI) in Tokyo last year.
Izuha, who rose to the top slot among 25,000 contestants (most of whom were, unsurprisingly, from Japan), takes the same approach to sake tasting as she does to wine tasting. First, she checks the color, which can give indications about the sake’s age. Generally speaking, older sake, particularly when aged at higher temperatures, takes on a darker hue and a stronger character. After sniffing and then sipping the drink, she tries to identify particular aromas and flavors.
“Many people just judge whether a sake is dry or sweet, but I think the most important thing is to look for certain kinds of flavors. There are only five tastes (salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami) but over 500 flavors,” she said. “I ask myself what kind of fruit, vegetable or kind of tree the flavor reminds me of.”
Ginjō and daiginjō-grade brews typically display fruity aromas and flavors such as melon, apple and pear. Some modern styles may have strawberry or tropical-fruit flavors of pineapple, mango or kiwi. Herbal notes such as watercress, anise and mint are also common. More full-bodied kimoto and yamahai styles, however, are likely to show earthier flavors like dried shiitake mushroom, toasted grain or wood. Because most varieties of sake contain some residual sugar, Izuha said that she also looks for sugary flavors: sweet rice powder, brown sugar, refined sugar or honey.
To fully appreciate the brew’s bouquet and range of flavors, she recommends using a wine glass, rather than the small cups commonly used to serve sake in Japan.
While there’s no set formula for pairing sake with food, the general idea is to try to match the intensity of the sake to the intensity of the dish.
“Raw aji (horse mackerel) has a lot of flavor and is eaten with ginger and onion, so this goes well with aromatic ginjō-grade sake that has a full flavor,” she explained. “On the other hand, full-bodied sake works with heavier fish or other dishes — for example, shimesaba (marinated mackerel) sushi, or simmered dishes such as niku-jaga (beef and potato stew) or nabe (hot-pots).”
Training your palate takes time, but it’s easy to get started: “You can do this in your everyday life, just by going to the supermarket and learning the flavors of fruits and vegetables,” Izuha concluded.
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.