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The Taste of Japanese Sake

Tom Inoue

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Sake is gaining popularity along with healthy Japanese cuisine. But this Asian drink made from rice is still unfamiliar to many.

Its taste varies from person to person because of the diversity of flavors. But there are some ways to describe its flavor profile by knowing the basics of sake making.

1. Sake Tastes Differently from Wine

wine and sake

Although they both share similar flavor profiles, sake and wine are different based on the following:

  1. Milder and more balanced flavor
    Sake is 80% water, doesn’t have tannins, and is much less acidic than wine. Its taste profile, sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and savoriness, is milder and more delicately balanced.
  2. Quieter Aroma
    Sake’s aroma can be described as fruity, nutty, or caramel-like. It also tends to be less fragrant than wine. In fact, sake was regarded as a drink of taste rather than aroma. It was only after the 1970s that aromatic sake appeared in the market.
  3. Same or slightly higher alcohol percentage
    Its alcohol level ranges from 8-20%, with the average of 15-16%, and is just slightly higher than wine, which is at 12-15%.
  4. No ‘vintage’
    Compared to wine that simply converts grapes to alcohol by single fermentation, sake is more of a product of techniques. Its complicated and delicate production processes and techniques do affect the final product. Conparing to that, a small change in the quality of rice grain year-by-year has little impact.
  5. Goes well with a variety of food
    Because sake is not as acidic as wine, and has more amino acids, it goes well with different food items regardless of cuisine. Cheese, steak, pizza, mashed potato, Italian, etc. When pairing, matching the weight and sweetness of sake to food is a good gauge, rather than matching acidity.

2. Taste profile of Sake

wine and sake

The 6 elements– impact, sweetness, acidity, bitterness, body, aroma are often noted by sake professionals. They are similar to that of wine except tannins aren’t considered.

Body and aroma set sake apart from wine.

2-1. Body

Generally Sake is rich in glutamic acid, which creates a body of sake. The amount of the acid is twice (100-250 mg/l) of wine (10-90 mg/l)*. This difference creates a richness referred to as savoriness or umami.

*Source: A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Sake

2-2. Aroma

While wine and sake share similar types of aroma, some are unique. Below is the broad classification of sake’s aroma.

wine and sake

The blue column of ‘Cereal/Fungi’ category is not found in wine flavor. These aromas are: rice, koji, and fungi. Koji is a variety of fungi that is used to decompose starch in rice to glucose. It smells like mushroom and potato.

3. Difference in Taste by Types

There are 1,260 breweries making over 40,000 brands in Japan as of 2010*. Although taste differs significantly between brands, you can infer the basic taste through the provided information.

*Source: Zero Kara Hajimeru Nihonshu Nyu-mon

2-1 Major Sake Types

There are three major sake types based on production methods—Honjozo, Junmai, and Ginjo. Some are light-bodied and some are fragrant.

wine and sake

Data source: National Tax Agency of Japan for body (‘notan-do’) and sweetness (‘amakara-do’)

Note that this is just a rough classification and each product in the market carries its own unique taste. Don’t rely heavily on these charts. Instead, use this as a starting guide to explore the sake world. For more details about these types, check out our articles about saket types.

That covers the basics of sake’s taste. If you like wine, you might enjoy sake too.

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