Describing and conveying the flavor of sake has always been problematic. How does one explain a gustatory experience in words alone? It certainly isn’t easy. And, as sake flavor profiles become more complex and subtle, it is bound to become even more difficult.

Long ago, before the days of amazing new yeast strains, modern technology and market-enlarging infrastructures, sake was much simpler. Much if not all sake was divided into two camps: amakuchi or karakuchi (sweet or dry). Today as well, we can quickly say a sake is sweet or dry, relative to some standard we hold, arbitrary as it might be. But there is so much more happening in a glass of sake to talk about.

One other system used to describe sake flavor, and in particular the balance of flavors, is the go-mi (five flavors) system. The five flavors are karami (dryness), amami (sweetness), sanmi (acidity), nigami (bitterness) and shibumi (tough to translate, but try astringency or tartness). This is originally from Chinese Taoism, which says consuming these five flavors, will keep you healthy. (There are actually other manifestations of the go-mi, but this one is most common.)

A good sake is said to hold these five in balance, but observant readers will surely notice that there are some holes in this theory. For example, dryness and sweetness are mutually exclusive, are they not? And the other four are no less arbitrary than any other chosen flavors. But hey, why let logic and common sense get in the way of an age-old system? And who are we to argue with Taoist priests?

It was long thought, however, that the human tongue can only sense four flavors: sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. Recently, however, Western science is catching up to Eastern intuition in identifying a fifth bona fide flavor: umami.

Unfortunately, however, umami does not have a simple English translation. It is best described as that aspect of a yummy food or drink that makes you say, “Mm, that’s good. I think I’ll have a bit more of that!” Some examples from the plethora of words that close in on the meaning of umami include: deliciousness, richness, fullness of flavor, meatiness, savory, well rounded . . . you get the picture.

It has been learned that umami is caused by several substances, including the amino acid glutamate, and its chemical salt form monosodium glutamate, the much-maligned MSG. Although a small percentage of the population is allergic to MSG, it has over the past few years been considered safe for almost everyone. When present in its “free” form, i.e. not bound to other amino acids, glutamate exudes umami.

Parmesan cheese, meat, soy sauce, scallops — all of these are high in glutamate and generally satisfy the palate. Much wine, too, has great umami, and wine tasters are beginning to incorporate it into their vocabulary.

In April 1997, two researchers at the University of Miami isolated taste buds that respond only to glutamate. This apparently qualifies it as a fifth taste, a fact that must certainly bring relief to centuries of chefs in the East.

Sake is often described as having umami, or not having umami. Not surprisingly, it is often linked to amino acid content (which is sometimes listed on the bottle). However, one cannot simply say “the more umami the better.” It is very much a matter of preference.

Dry, light sake often has little umami at all, and is indeed prized for just that quality. Other styles of sake have that rich, meaty quality that umami describes, and are in demand for that. Tasting a wide range of sake helps determine your own preferences.

Although it is not what everyone wants, too little umami in any sake will make it taste thin and weary. Yet, too much umami can often correlate to zatsumi (off flavors), or a rough and noisy flavor profile. As in all things, balance is best. Other factors, like sweetness/dryness and acidity, must be taken into account to strike that balance.

Much cheap, mass-produced sake, with its gads of added distilled alcohol, is low on umami. Fine, top-grade ginjo-shu sake may not be considered, upon sipping, to have much umami, as it would cloy the deeper recesses of flavor and elegant fragrances it was brewed to exude. But nor would it be considered lacking in umami.

Sturdier strata of sake, like typical junmai-shu, are more often where good, solid umami-laden sake can be found. But there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake that these guidelines are all generalizations that cannot hold a candle to tasting experience. There is umami-rich and umami-poor sake all over the spectrum.

“Umami ga aru” is an often-heard term in today’s sake-tasting circles. Using it when applicable is sure to impress your drinking companions, or the local sake pub master.

Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery March 4, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and me (different topics than last month’s seminar). To make a reservation, e-mail or fax me at the address or number below (e-mail preferred), or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108. Details will be provided by e-mail later. Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter and wade through oodles of information about sake (including definitions of sake grades and classifications) at www.sake-world.com. Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events and seminars, send an e-mail to sakeguy@gol.com, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8233.

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Waka Ebisu (Mie Prefecture)
“Maho” junmai ginjo-shu
Nihonshu-do: +3
Acidity: 1.5
Seimai-buai: 53 percent

Waka Ebisu’s Maho has been brewed using the yamahai-shikomi method, a rarity among ginjo-shu. Sake brewed using the yamahai method often has great umami, balanced with the higher acidity typical of yamahai sake. Also listed on the label is a whopping 1.5 amino acid content. (Typical is 1.0 or 1.1.) Note the correlation to the decent umami.

Maho has a nice, full flavor that dovetails nicely into a clean tail. There is a lightness of flavor arising from the center of an overall heavy and rich flavor profile. Quite interesting, and goes well gently warmed as well as slightly chilled.

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