Sake, a rice wine that has long been popular in Japan, is gaining an audience of devotees in the U.S. For those who are new to the world of sake, the endless varieties and unfamiliar labels can leave you feeling ill-prepared and frustrated. However, with just a little time and attention, even the least-experienced sake drinker can proudly purchase and share a bottle with friends.
Consider your own palette preferences before visiting your local liquor store or Asian grocery. Do you prefer wines that are sweet or dry, heavy or light? You’ll find sakes with these tastes readily available, so you can match your taste preferences with some general Japanese terms found on sake labels. Karakuchi is dry; amakuchi is sweet; tanrei is light and refined; omoi is heavy. These terms are also used in various combinations to better define the distinct sake flavors. For example, tanrei karakuchi is both light and dry; this sake is extremely popular in Japan.
Keep a list of premium sake classifications or grades in your purse or wallet and refer to it when shopping; these include junmai, honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo. Junmai only contains rice and has a full and solid flavor, honjozo is mildly fragrant and very drinkable, ginjo is more labor intensive to produce resulting in a lighter, fruitier, more fragrant product, and daiginjo, considered the highest quality sake, is extremely fragrant with complex flavors.
Pay attention to sake color, which is a good indicator of quality and flavor. In the U.S., milky, white sakes are well-liked due to their high level of sweetness. These nigori or unfiltered sakes are not as popular in Japan. Sake that has been filtered is light amber or gold in color and is typically full-flavored and good quality. Avoid sakes that are dark and drab brown, most likely they are past their prime.
Buy sakes that have been brewed in the past 12 to 15 months. Unlike wine and beer, the aging process does not improve sake. Keep sake cool until you are ready to serve; this slows down the process of change. Once you open a bottle, drink it as soon as possible.
Keep a sake journal of your tasting experiences. The styles and names of sakes can seem impossible to remember, so log your likes and dislikes in your journal in order to return to the ones you enjoy.
Unlike wine or beer, the technique used to brew sake determines its flavor more so than the quality of the rice crop that year. Therefore, when you find a sake you love, you can count on it to remain of consistent quality in future bottles.
References and Resources"The Sake Handbook"; John Gauntner; 1998.