All too often, sake is consumed quickly without much thought. There's a lot going on in each sip of sake, though—all you have to do is pay attention. Here are a few basic tips to take the intimidation factor out of your sake explorations.
Use The Right Glassware
The small ceramic cups used for hot sake (called o-chokos) aren't the best way to experience good sake. White wine glasses are a better choice, since they give you room to smell the sake and let it open up. Chris Johnson (a 10-time judge of the US National Sake Appraisal held annually in Hawaii) told me he prefers "a wine glass with a small bulb and a slightly tighter opening to focus the aroma." Earthier, more rustic styles of sake such as Honjozo, Junmai, and Kimoto/Yamahai show their best side in a smaller glass, while more expressive Ginjo/Daiginjo styles benefit from a glass with a larger bulb. There's no need to run out and purchase a set of sake glasses for drinking at home; the wine glasses you already own will serve you much better.
Check Out the Color
Fresh sake in good condition should be relatively clear. Though it may have a slight strawlike tone or even greenish hues, Johnson says that "if you see more tan or brownish tints, it could very well be sake that's past its prime or approaching oxidation." The sake should also be free of floating sediments, unless it is a nigori (cloudy) sake.
Pay Attention To Aroma
Once you've selected a glass that allows you some room for movement, give your sake a few gentle swirls to release the aromas. This can reveal positive characteristics about the sake, as well as off notes. Floral, tropical, and earthy scents are all a good sign, but if you smell burnt and musty notes, that's bad. Earthiness, smokiness, and rice-centric aromas are indicative of more rustic styles, while fruity and floral notes are more characteristic of Ginjo/Daiginjo and unpasteurized types of sake. Chizuko Niikawa-Helton, a certified sake sommelier and the president of Sake Discoveries, advises that beginners start with Ginjo, and look for fresh peach, pineapple, strawberry, and apple aromas. Richer styles are more complex and challenging.
The fragrance of sake is often broken down into three experiences: the "uwadachi-ka," or "initial smell," rises from the sake before tasting. These include sake's more obvious characteristics, such as the earthiness of junmai styles and fruitiness of ginjo. The second part, "fukumi-ka," describes the new fragrances that are introduced by breathing through the nose while sake is being tasted. The "fukumi-ka" reveals elements of the sake that provide balance; astringency and bitterness should be present, but neither in excess. The "modori-ka" is the third dimension of aroma, those present in the finish of the sake after you've sipped it. These subtler aromas often include notes like star anise, fennel, and white pepper.
Sake's Flavor and Texture
When tasting sakes, look for flavors that confirm your initial impressions of the sake's aroma. "If you smell shiitake mushroom on the nose, the flavor should match that initial earthiness," says Johnson. "If your initial impression of a sake is fruity and floral but the flavor is astringent or sour, this suggests the sake lacks overall balance." You can also evaluate the texture of the sake. Honjozo styles are meant to be pretty straightforward with a light texture. Junmai sakes are richer on the palate and the overall impact tends to be more powerful.
Experiment with Temperature
Sake Samurai and Urban Sake blogger Tim Sullivan encourages sake tasters to try each sake at a few different temperatures. "The truth is that sake is one of the most flexible alcoholic beverages when it comes to serving temperature," says Sullivan. "Find a sake you enjoy and pour yourself a glass right out of the fridge...take a sip every five minutes and note changes in taste as the sake slowly warms to room temperature. You'll be amazed at the variations in flavor and impression." Earthier, richer styles of sake can be especially lovely at room temperature or just warmer; the warmth enhances the sweetness and umami of the sake. Fruitier styles can be particularly lovely when served slightly chilled.
Dryness and Sweetness: Sake Meter Value
Here's a game to try: before you look at the SMV that appears on the label of your sake, evaluate whether the sake tastes dry or sweet to you. SMV stands for the Sake Meter Value, or "nihonshu-do". The SMV system measures the density of sake compared to the density of water. A sake with more residual sugar will be heavier, so the SMV measures sweetness. Negative numbers on the scale (as low as -5 or so) are the sweetest. Sakes with a +10 SMV are considered dry, or "karakuchi," while sakes with a +15 SMV are considered extra dry, or "cho-karakuchi." It might be difficult to tell the difference in sweetness between two sakes with +3 and +4 SMV value, but you'll taste marked differences between a -5 and a +7. Presence of acidity in the sake may make it taste less sweet despite residual sugars being present.
Take your time as you explore sake, and don't worry about getting the answers 'right'—everyone's palate is different. Invite a few friends over and have everyone bring a different bottle to share. Consider the scent, the color, flavor, and texture, how sweet it is and what temperature makes it taste the best to you. You'll learn about sake, and you'll learn about what kinds of sakes you prefer.