Learning about Sake can be as much about forgetting what is unhelpful. Here are pitfalls I recommend avoiding on your Sake adventure:
- Newspaper articles
The national alcohol of Japan, Sake suggestions occasionally appear in American newspaper articles. These authors recommend this or that, but their selection process goes unexplained and seems at best arbitrary. The descriptions feel lacking, snobbish, and often lean on outdated Oriental Mysticism. If you find an article that doesn't include some sense of credentials for whoever is recommending the Sake, a dose of skepticism may be healthy.
Often referred to as "Rice Wine", Sake is sometimes scored at wine competitions. The intention to measure Sake as a premium beverage with complexity, depth, and value on par with fine wine is well-meaning and deserved. Unfortunately, the scores come from wine experts with barely any experience drinking Sake. The scores mean less than Yelp reviews of Pho restaurants in America - mostly written by people who might not even like an authentic-tasting bowl if they found one. A primary difference when scoring Sake versus wine is the bouquet or "nose". Traditionally, Sake has had a 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 a lack of perspective, so go ahead and ignore them!
Grades of Sake start from the least restricted "Futsushu" (which may also be labeled "Seishu", meaning a Sake made in Japan) and increase incrementally to the more expensive to produce "Junmai Daiginjo". These grades refer primarily to the polish-ratio of the rice used. Setting that aside, here is my primary concern: Not all Daiginjo (pronounced "Die, Green Joe!", minus the "r") are "better" than the "lower" grades. Hiro, for example, is a label with a Daiginjo I find poorly balanced and not worth the premium price tag. I would much sooner recommend Shiragiku Brewery's "Ohkagura", a Futsushu that I find superior in every way and costs less. The takeaway: You can't judge a Sake solely by grade. Pairing with food is another matter to consider that I will discuss in a future post.
- Avoiding "Dry and Sweet"
Most Sake beginners start off enjoying sweeter sake, especially cloudy "Nigori" (pronounced "Knee Gorey"). Beginners who like spirits might prefer a dry "Karakuchi" Sake on the other end of the spectrum. Unlike wine, Sake has a range including neutral - between sweet and dry, with semi-sweet or semi-dry between those. These "middle" Sake can appeal to a wider crowd if you are splitting a bottle. Additionally, Sake does not contain tannins, like red wine, so depending on your pallet, a neutral or semi-dry Sake might taste sweet to you and dry to your guest. For these reasons, distributors and restaurants often avoid describing Sake in terms of sweet or dry, preferring descriptors like "fruity, minerally, earthy" -- even "funky". These are definitely more specific and helpful, but for casual drinkers of Sake in Japan, "sweet or dry", is a common, perfectly reasonable question, even used by the Sake brewers themselves. For that reason, I disagree with avoiding the more basic descriptors completely. Just remember that when asked "Dry or sweet?", "In-between" is a perfectly acceptable answer!