The terms amakuchi (sweet) and karakuchi (dry) are often used to describe the two basic categories of Japanese sake, but anyone who has tasted sake knows that these terms are too broad to express all of its complex flavor nuances and variations. Exploring these delicate depths and subtle flavor differences is one of the joys of appreciating sake.
The secret to enjoying sake is discovering what style you like. First, you can consider whether you prefer karakuchi dryness or amakuchi sweetness, and if you like your sake light and clean, or rich and strong. The flavor of sake is also affected by the temperature at which it is served and the food that accompanies it. Some types of sake are best served cold, and others really shine with certain types of food. Trying sake at different temperatures and with different types of food can help you to discover a whole new world of sake flavor.
Sake back labels offer the consumer plenty of information, including numbers and percentages indicating alcohol content, acidity and amino acid content. These numbers are the result of data analysis, and are not always perceived in the same way by the human tongue, but the information they provide can give you an idea of what flavors to expect from a bottle of sake.
Nihonshudo, or the SMV (sake meter value), measures the density of sake as compared to water, and indicates the level of sweetness or dryness of the sake. With water given a value of ±0, negative values indicate higher densities, while positive values indicate lower densities. The lower the negative value, the more residual sugar and the sweeter the sake, and the higher the positive value, the less residual sugar and the drier the sake.
Sando (acidity) indicates the level of organic acids, primarily lactic acid and succinic acid, that are present in sake. The average acidity level is around 1.3, and sake with higher acidity levels is more structured, dry and robust, while sake with lower acidity is sweeter and lighter.
Amino-sando, or "amino acid content," indicates the amount of amino acids present in sake. If a sake has less amino acids, it will be lighter and fresher. Sake with higher levels of amino acids will have more of the "umami" flavor component, but excessive amino acid can result in a heavy and over-flavored sake.
One distinguishing feature of Japanese sake is that it can be enjoyed at a variety of temperatures. Since temperature variations can bring out subtle differences in flavor, even a temperature difference of 5°C can result in an entirely different flavor experience.
|熱燗Atsu Kan||(55°C)||Steam rises from the tokkuri flask, and when poured, the sake looks hot. Sake heated to this temperature has a sharp, dry flavor.|
|ぬる燗Nuru Kan||(40°C)||Equal to or slightly higher than body temperature. Sake best served at this temperature will have aromas and flavors that open up and expand when warmed.|
|日向燗Hinata Kan||(30°C)||Slightly lower than body temperature. The sake will taste neither hot nor cold, and aromas are mildly enhanced, with a smooth mouth-feel.|
|常温Jo-on||(20°C)||"Jo-on" or "hiya" refers to sake served at room temperature. Flavors and aromas are soft, and when trying a new sake, this is a good temperature to start with.|
|涼冷えSuzu-bie||(15°C)||Chilled in the refrigerator, and then left out for a while. When poured, the sake feels quite cold. This temperature brings out fragrant aromas and round flavors.|
|花冷えHana-bie||(10°C)||Chilled in the refrigerator for several hours, the sake will feel very cold. Aromas are more muted, while the delicate texture of a sake is emphasized. Popular in summer.|
Sake cups are not only aesthetically pleasing, but they can actually change the way a sake smells and tastes. Japanese sake is known for its delicacy of aroma and flavor, and the material and shape of a drinking cup, along with the diameter of its opening, can affect the way a sake is perceived. A cup with a larger surface area allows a sake to release its aromatics, and is suitable for fresher types of sake. A cup with a narrowed opening, like that of a wine glass, can concentrate and enhance the aromas within.
The serving temperature also affects the drinking vessel of choice, as cold sake is often served in glass cups, while porcelain or earthenware cups may be chosen for warm or hot sake. Serving well-matured sake, nigori-zake and barrel-aged sake in glass vessels also allows for the appreciation of the color and visual texture of the sake.