SAKE SECRET: SWEET or DRY?
You spot a small Sake section while shopping for wine. You know enough about wine styles to tell a Riesling is sweet, a Merlot dry, but what about Sake? Can Sake even be sweet or dry? Do you know your preference? When shopping for Sake, you might look for something you tasted at a restaurant. If you can't find that, you grab whatever is cheapest, or something priced in the middle with an appealing label. Sound like you?
Everyone, myself included, has shopped this way for some kind of specialty item. For Sake, this means consideration of sweet and dry becomes an afterthought. You may end up with something terrible - or worse: something great that just wasn't for you!
To help you judge dry and sweet, Japan developed a Sake Meter Value, or "SMV" (Nihon Shudo, in Japanese). The scale is simple: any positive (+) number would mean dry, zero is neutral, and negative (-) numbers are sweet. Turns out, that scale was too simple... Japanese importer and distributor JFC, created this second chart to include more factors:
You can see their original post here: http://sakeexpert.com/saketaste.php
Wine's sweetness or dryness is similarly affected by sweet, unfermented sugar, as well as astringent tannins. Sake contains no tannins, but all Sake is acidic, thanks to the brewing process that makes it rich in lactic and amino acids. That acidity can make you perceive a Sake with a negative number as dry. It also means some well-balanced Sake with plus or minus numbers can taste neutral - neither sweet nor dry. The above chart tries to account for that, as well as adding a dimension of rich-versus-light. The final consideration that cannot be calculated, is personal perception. Some people perceive fruity, floral, or Sake rich in rice-umami as sweet, especially in Junmai Sake styles. Still, this chart can prove helpful if the Sake you're looking at includes the SMV and acidity - which many do on the reverse, English-language label.
The best news is: if you didn't like it, you are not wrong. Even with an untrained palate, you are an expert in knowing what you like. Beyond personal preference, you can also probably tell if a Sake tastes improperly balanced. A bad dry Sake will taste too boozy (alcohol-forward) with a burning or long aftertaste, while a poorly-made sweet Sake will taste syrupy or cloying. These problems come up frequently with cheaper, domestic (American-made) and/or mass-produced Japanese Sake, but they are not the only culprits.
A final disclaimer about SMVs: higher (-) or (+) numbers *should* mean more sweet or dry than lower numbers, but alcohol content and its balance of component flavors can change everything. Shimane's Kan-Nihonkai is +15, but tastes so balanced, I find it comes off tasting much less dry than Kurosawa Kimoto Junmai, with an SMV of only +2!
My recommendation: Try to find a neutral sake. You may prefer dry or sweet, but a soft, neutral sake like Kikusui Junmai Ginjo will keep everyone happy, including you.
Unless you're trying to pair Sake with food... more on that next time!
Do you prefer sweet or dry? Have a question or a favorite label?
Get involved! Keep the conversation going in the comments!