Sake - Part 2 - Sake Types and their Flavor Profiles
Before starting our discussion of the different types of Sake, there are some terms you will need to understand that will help to describe the typical flavor profile for each Sake type.
Fragrance (none to fragrant)
Some Sake has a very prominent fragrance, especially many premium Sakes. These fragrances can be fruit fragrances of all kinds, flowers, rice-like elements, and anything and everything in between. Sometimes it's gentle and is only there for a few seconds, and other times it can be strong and have staying power. Others have almost no perceptible fragrance whatsoever.
Neither end of this spectrum is inherently better than the other. More often than not, the fragrance of a sake is a function of the style of that particular region, which is tied to the water and rice. You can assume that the result was not by accident, but was precisely the fragrance the toji (head brewer) wanted to create.
Fragrance Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
None 1 2 3 4 5 Fragrant
Impact (quiet to explosive)
This is the initial impression of a sake immediately after you taste it. Known as "kuchi-atari" in Japanese, the impact a sake has is affected by many things in its production. The pH of the water, alcohol content, rice type, milling rate and specific gravity all affect the Impact.
Some sake is soft and gentle, barely making its presence known. Some could awaken you out of slumber with an acidity or sweetness exploding across your palate. Some spreads flavor into each nook and cranny of your mouth, and other sake makes a narrow and clean beeline for your throat.
Acidity can make a sake spread like wildfire, and alcohol can light up your palate (which is why most sake is watered down from the naturally occurring 19-20 percent alcohol to 15-16%). Softer water won't give you the crisp slap that hard water will. As both types have their pros and cons, let your palate find your preference.
Impact Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
Quiet 1 2 3 4 5 Explosive
Sweet/Dry (sweet to dry)
Although seemingly very simple, this dimension of sake can be difficult to express and convey. On the most elementary level, this is related to the "nihonshu-do," also known as the Sake Meter Value (SMV).
The nihonshu-do is a measure of the specific gravity of a sake, or the ratio of the density of the sake in relation to the density of pure water. As a general rule of thumb, the more unfermented sugar in the sake the more dense it is. The scale used by brewers (it is open-ended, but generally runs from -5 to +10 or so) has numbers assigned in such a way that lower or negative numbers indicate increasing sweetness, and higher positive numbers indicate drier sake. Originally, 0 was considered to be neutral. However, as perceptions and preferences have changed over the last few decades, +2 or so is considered to be neutral.
The nihonshu-do is far from being the only factor affecting the impression of sweet or dry. In particular, acidity plays a huge role. Sake with higher acidity will generally taste drier based on the nihonshu-do numbers alone. Alternately, a sake with lower than usual levels of acid can taste a tad sweeter than their nihonshu-do would indicate. Temperature is another contributing factor. Sweetness and dryness in sake is much more temperature-dependent than in wine. Just a few degrees of change can make a sake seem sweeter or drier. In the end, sweet or dry is a subjective assessment, and nihonshu-do is at best a ballpark indication of this parameter.
Sweet/Dry Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
Sweet 1 2 3 4 5 Dry
Acidity (soft to puckering)
Acidity in sake is expressed as the number of ml of a base chemical needed to neutralize 10ml of sake. The number normally ranges between 0.8 and 1.7. While this is not a huge range, the important thing to keep in mind is that the perception of acidity is not always directly correlated to the actual acid content. A sweeter rougher sake may not taste as acidic as a drier sake with the same acidity.
Acidity makes its presence felt most noticeably at the beginning and at the end. Sake with higher acidity often stands up better to oilier foods like tempura or oilier fish (raw or cooked). Rich flavored or rather salty side dishes may not need all that much acid, and in fact will work better with a lower-acidity sake.
Acidity Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
Soft 1 2 3 4 5 Puckering
Presence (unassuming to full)
This could also be referred to as body. Sake is in general a light beverage. Even compared to the lightest of wines, sake is quite light. "Presence" refers to the mouth feel, the graininess against your tongue, the viscosity or lack thereof. It can range from unassuming, quiet, light, airy and delicate on one end, to full-bodied, fat, heavy, thick, and ripe on the other. There are sakes that are smooth and airy and sakes that are rich and creamy.
The actual difference between one sake and another is a bit more subtle than the words here may convey and the spectrum is not all that wide. But there are very real differences between one sake and another in terms of the presence they command.
As with the other parameters, this naturally depends on a myriad of factors, and the factors are the same here: water pH and mineral content, acidity, choice of rice, etc.
Presence Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
Unassuming 1 2 3 4 5 Full
Complexity (straightforward to complex)
Some sakes are very straightforward. What you taste is what you get. This can be very reassuring and sometimes exactly what you want. For example, if the conversation is likely to be lively and loud, the chances that anyone is going to meditatively ponder the layered contours of the sake you are tasting are rather small. Simple but solid sake is what you need.
Then there are those sakes that are layered, intricate and complexly structured ("oku -bukai" in Japanese). The quieter you get and the more you put your attention into it, the more flavors and sensations present themselves to your mouth, nose and mind. Some would say this kind of sake represents the pinnacle of sake brewing and sake tasting. Once again, neither is inherently better than the other.
Complexity Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
Straightforward 1 2 3 4 5 Complex
Earthiness (delicate to dank)
This particularly interesting factor is more defined by the presence of heavier elements than by the lack of them. In other words, some sake is bitter, dank, tart, dark, and/or heavy. The opposite of this is not so much light and delicate sake as it is sake that doesn't display these attributes so readily.
Aged sake often has such earthiness as part of its flavor profile. So does, very generally speaking, sake from the southern part of Japan. Although the connotations of words like earthy and dank may conjure images of a good 20-year old distilled beverage, the above must be taken within the context of the flavor profile of sake, i.e. delicate and of narrow bandwidth.
Earthiness Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
Delicate 1 2 3 4 5 Dank
Tail (quickly vanishing to pervasive)
Does the sake flavor disappear from your mouth and throat in an instant? Or, does it linger, the puckering acidity or stubborn sweetness remaining to be savored for minutes afterwards.
A sake tail (kire in Japanese) can run the gamut from clean, crisp, sharp and vanishing to lingering, puckering and pervasive. Although all too often the instantaneously-vanishing tail is the favorite, lingering tails can be a godsend, with the right accompaniment and attitude. If a sake flavor is pleasing, it only makes sense to want it around a little longer.
Naturally, this too is a matter of preference and a related to the external environment.
Tail Flavor Profile Numerical Ranking Definition (on a scale from 1 to 5)
Brief 1 2 3 4 5 Pervasive
Now that you know the basics, let's take a look at the different types of sake. There are six basic types of sake, each requiring a different brewing method. The six types are:
The first four types combine to form what is known as Special Designation Sake, or "Tokute Meishoshu" in Japanese. Each of these types has a general flavor profile based on the brewing methods employed. However, there is a great deal of overlap between each type. Many things come into play affecting the flavor profile of the sake such as the rice, water, skill of the brewers, etc. As a result it is next to impossible to isolate how a sake will taste based on which type it is. Nonetheless, generalities can be useful.
This can be thought of as pure rice sake. Nothing is used in its production except rice, water and koji. Junmai-shu is made with rice that has been polished so that at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been polished away. The taste of Junmai-shu is usually a bit heavier and fuller than other types, and the acidity is often a little higher as well.
Honjozo-shu is sake to which a very small amount of distilled ethyl alcohol (called brewers alcohol) has been added to the fermenting sake at the final stages of production. Water is added later, so that the overall alcohol content does not change. Honjozo-shu, like Junmai-shu, is made with rice that has been polished so that at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been polished away. This, plus the addition of the alcohol, makes the sake lighter, sometimes a bit drier, and in the opinion of many, easier to drink. It also makes the fragrance of the sake more prominent. Honjozo-shu often makes a good candidate for warm sake. Note that most run-of-the-mill cheaper sake has an excessive amount of alcohol added to it, which is not good. Honjozo-shu has only a very small amount of alcohol added.
This is sake made with rice that has been polished so that at least the outer 40% has been polished away. This removes the fats, proteins and other things that impede fermentation and cause off-flavors. But that is only the beginning. Ginjo-shu is made in a very labor intensive way, and it is fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. The flavor is more complex and delicate, and both the flavor and the fragrance are often (but not always) fruity and flowery.
Daiginjo-shu is Ginjo-shu made with rice polished even more, so that at least the outer 50% has been polished away. Some Daiginjo-shu is made with rice polished so that at least the outer 65% is polished away. Daiginjo-shu is made in even more painstaking ways, with even more labor intensive steps.
Junmai Ginjo-shu and Junmai Daiginjo-shu
Some Ginjo-shu and Daiginjo-shu are also Junmai-shu. In other words, a Junmai Ginjo-shu is a Ginjo-shu with added alcohol. If a Ginjo-shu or Daiginjo-shu is not labeled Junmai, the the added alcohol is limited to the same small amounts as Honjozo-shu.
Nama-zae is sake that has not been pasteurized. It should be stored cold, or the flavor and clarity could suffer. Nama-zake has a fresh, lively flavor. All types of sake (Junmai-shu, Honjozo-shu, Ginjo-shu and Daiginjo-shu) can be Nama-zake.
Futsu-shu is "normal sake", i.e. sake that does not qualify for one of the above types of classifications. It is the equivalent of "table wine" in the wine world, and makes up about 80% of all sake that is made. These types of Sake are produced with relative large amounts of alcohol added to increase yields.