Shopping for Sake: SWEET or DRY?
Has this ever happened to you?
You spot a small Sake section while shopping for wine. You know with wine styles Riesling is sweet, Merlot is dry, but what about Sake? Can Sake even be sweet or dry? Do you know your preference?
You might look for something you liked at a restaurant, 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 preferences as basic as "sweet or dry" become an afterthought. You may end up with something terrible or something great that just wasn't for you. Worst of all these experiences might trick you into thinking you dislike all Sake!
SWEET or DRY?
As I mentioned in "Sake DON'Ts", a basic question in choosing Sake is: "sweet, dry, or something in-between?" To help differentiate, Japan developed the "SMV" (Sake Meter Value). With this simple scale based on unfermented sugar, any positive (+) number would mean dry, zero = neutral, and negative (-) numbers sweet. The higher the number, the more sweet or dry the flavor. Turns out, that scale was too simple...
Japanese importer and distributor JFC, created this chart to include more factors:
You can see their original post here: http://sakeexpert.com/saketaste.php
Sake VS Wine
Unlike wine, Sake contains no tannins, but, all Sake is acidic. That acidity, along with fruity esters created by fermentation, can skew your perception. The final consideration cannot be calculated, because it comes down to personal perception. To some, Sake rich in rice-umami, fruity, or floral flavors will taste 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 of the English-language labels do, on the back of the bottle.
Is the Sake Bad, or is it Me?
Personal preference is one matter. Beyond that, you can probably tell a poorly made dry Sake if it tastes too boozy - with a burning or long aftertaste. A poorly-made sweet Sake will taste cloying or artificial - like syrup. These problems happen more frequently with cheaper or mass-produced Sake, but they are not the only culprits. Finally, like beer or wine, Sake can go bad by exposure to too much sunlight, heat, or air (leaving a bottle open or unrefrigerated too long). These Sake smell, taste, and even start to look like rust or bronze.
A Final Disclaimer about SMVs:
Higher (-) or (+) numbers *should* mean more sweet or dry than lower numbers, but alcohol content and balance of flavors can change everything. Kan-Nihonkai, from Shimane has a +15 SMV, but is so well-balanced. I find it comes off tasting much less dry than say, Kurosawa, a Kimoto Junmai Sake with an SMV of only +2!
Serving Sake to a Large Group?
Try to find a neutral sake. Whether you prefer dry or sweet, a soft, neutral sake will keep everyone happy, including you. The common go-to is Kikusui Junmai Ginjo, but maybe you don't want common...
Trouble Finding Sake You Love?
Not every Sake is available everywhere. Helping you find the best Sake in your area, how to present it, and more are just a few ways SAKE SECRET can help you.
SAKESECRET.com will continue to grow as a resource and a space for inspiration. Check back frequently for new offerings, such as updates to this blog, or better yet:
Do you prefer sweet or dry? Have a question or a favorite label you want to discuss?
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