Learning about Sake can mean unlearning some things too. I actually recommend forgetting what you read in newspaper articles, ignoring wine scores, Sake grades, and more. Here's why:
Ever read Sake reviews in the newspaper?
Sake suggestions will appear occasionally in newspaper articles. The author recommends this Sake or that, but not how they made their selection. The process goes unexplained and always seems arbitrary at best.
These descriptions feel lacking, snobbish, and often lean on outdated Oriental Mysticism. That's because 9 times out of 10, the author is a wine expert. Sake is not wine. If the author doesn't include some Sake credentials, proceed with extreme skepticism.
Ever see Sake with a Wine Score?
Often referred to in English as "Rice Wine", Sake is sometimes scored at wine competitions. Don't get me wrong, Sake is a refined, premium beverage with complexity, depth, and value on par with fine wine. The problem is that most wine experts scoring them are not Sake experts.
One common mistake when scoring Sake like wine is in the bouquet or "nose". Traditionally, Sake has a purposely muted or subtle fragrance. Modern Sake can smell just as bold and complex as any wine if brewed with that intention, but it does not need to. Without an accurate understanding of Japanese expectations of Sake, these scores are skewed by cultural bias, so go ahead and ignore them!
Ever hear the best Sake is Junmai Daiginjo?
Grades of Sake start from the least restricted "Futsushu" (pronounced "Foot Sue Shoe") and increase incrementally to the more expensive to produce "Junmai Daiginjo". These grades refer primarily to the polish-ratio of the rice used.
But not all Daiginjo (pronounced "Die, Green Joe!", without the "r") are better than the "lower" grades. Hiro makes a Daiginjo I find poorly balanced and not worth the $100+ price tag. I would much sooner recommend Shiragiku Brewery's "Ohkagura", a superior Futsushu which costs considerably less.
The takeaway: Don't judge a Sake solely on grade. Pairing with food is another matter to consider that I will discuss in a future post.
Ever been told not to call Sake "Dry" or "Sweet"?
Many Sake beginners enjoy sweeter sake, especially cloudy "Nigori" (pronounced "Knee Gorey"). Those who like spirits might prefer a dry Sake, called "Karakuchi" (pronounced "Cod a coochie"). The range of Sake includes neutral - between sweet and dry, with semi-sweet or semi-dry between those.
These "middle" Sake can appeal to a wider crowd when sharing a bottle. Also, Sake does not contain the dry tannins in red wine, so depending on your pallet, a semi-dry Sake can taste sweet to some. A semi-sweet Sake could taste even taste dry depending on the person's sensitivities to alcohol or acidity. For these reasons, some distributors and restaurants avoid describing Sake in terms of "sweet or dry". Using descriptors like "fruity, minerally, earthy" -- even "funky"!
While more specific words are helpful, for casual drinkers of Sake, in Japan "sweet or dry?", is a perfectly common and reasonable question. Even Sake brewers use it! For that reason, I disagree with avoiding "sweet or dry" completely. Just remember that "in-between" is another perfectly acceptable option.
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