For those new to the world of sake, one of the hardest questions to answer is, “What style of sake do you like?”
People almost invariably claim to prefer dry brews, but when offered, for example, a classic honjōzo-style sake, which is generally light and crisp in character, many sake neophytes find the flavor too subtle, or even too dry. Consumers are rarely accurate in describing their own taste preferences, especially without prior knowledge of sake basics. It’s like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle of an image you’ve never seen: How do you know where to start?
Several sake specialty bars have replaced printed menus with lists of flavor descriptors, giving recommendations based on broader categories. Although the prompts are intended to offer guidance, the vagueness of terms such as “fresh,” “elegant” and “wild” can leave some feeling flummoxed.
The founders of Yummy Sake Collective, a new bar and retail space in Tokyo’s Daikanyama neighborhood, posit that technology could provide a better solution, and have created a system that uses an artificial-intelligence-powered app to help drinkers determine their likes and dislikes.
Yummy Sake begins by identifying 12 flavor profiles, assigning each an onomatopoeic moniker, such as toro-toro — an expression often used to describe a syrupy consistency — or suru-suru, which means “smooth.” According to the Yummy Sake app, toro-toro corresponds to sake that has “mellow aroma and flavor, with a milky, viscous mouthfeel,” while suru-suru is associated with “silky texture.” The taste discovery experience, which costs ¥2,000, involves a blind sampling of 10 brews (two of the 12 flavors are sparkling varieties that aren’t included in the tasting). After rating each on a scale of one to five, customers simply enter their scores in the app.
On a recent evening, I try out the system with a few friends, including sake educator and consultant Natsuki Kikuya, of London’s Museum of Sake. Yuki Terada, sales director for Yummy Sake Collective’s parent company, Mirai Sake Company, greets us as we step into the stylishly minimalist space, which features a long counter opposite a row of glowing glass-fronted refrigerators stocked with 90 varieties of sake. He presents each of us with a tray of 10 black cups containing tiny sips that take only a few minutes to evaluate. Our results reveal that all three of us favor yura-yura types of sake. The expression translates loosely as “slowly swaying,” or “rolling,” and it describes a richer style with rounded sweetness and complexity commonly associated with aged brews. When we tell Terada, his eyes widen in surprise.
“That’s unusual,” he says, explaining that the yura-yura flavor profile is “the most advanced level” on the Yummy Sake chart. While most sake beginners show a preference for fragrant, fruitier styles, “experienced drinkers” tend to veer toward sharper and more idiosyncratic varieties. Terada tells us that his tastes fall into the puri-puri (springy, juicy) category, characterized by prominent acidity and fuller body.
I make a note to add “experienced drinker” to my resume.
The shop sells a series of Yummy Sake private-label brews that typify each of the 12 flavor profiles, and the tasting set comes with a glass of sake from the lineup that matches your identified preference. The yura-yura glass is deep brown in color, with earthy-sweet notes of dried fruit and nuts. To accompany our sake, we order the snack Terada suggests as an accompaniment — cucumber sticks with spicy fermented mackerel paste.
“Of course, the same person can get a different result every time,” he says, noting that preferences change “depending on your mood, the weather and if you’ve eaten or not.”
I’m game to try the blind tasting again. Eventually, I’ll probably hit all 12 categories — the true mark of an experienced drinker.
For more information about Yummy Sake Collective, visit yummysakecollective.jp.
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