Asking what sake tastes like asking what soda tastes like. There are so many varieties each with their own unique flavors and blends of ingredients. The production of sake dates back all the way to 500 BC, so you can imagine how many different styles of brewing have been discovered since then.
Sake (sometimes called “rice wine”) is an alcoholic beverage made by mixing fermented rice, koji mold, and water. Depending on the brewing method, its flavor can range from fruity and nutty to bitter and savory.
The Five Flavor Profiles of Sake
Sake is assessed by its go-mi, which means its balance between five flavors. These five flavors include
- Karami (dryness)
- Shibumi (tartness)
- Nigami (bitterness)
- Amami (sweetness)
- Sanmi (acidity)
The system of balancing these five flavors dates back to an ancient Chinese philosophy that consuming all five of these flavors will develop the five senses and types of internal energy.
Modern styles of describing sake use words such as mellow, soft, dry, rich, light, fresh, aged, fruity, or sweet. These words are most often used to describe wine and are a bit easier for the casual drinker to pick apart the complex flavors.
Types of Sake
Although all sake uses the same three ingredients, all sake is not created equal. From fruity, light-flavored sake that’s similar to flavored water to umami, unfiltered sake that’s high in alcohol content, it’s important to know what type of sake you like so you’re not unpleasantly surprised when you try a new bottle.
Also known as “pure rice sake”, junmai sake uses a mixture of 70% milled rice to 30% unmilled rice. This means that 30% of the rice doesn’t have its outer layer removed, leading to a rich full-body flavor with slight acidity.
Ginjo sake uses 60% milled rice and is brewed using special yeast and fermentation techniques. The result is a fruity and complex flavor that’s very fragrant.
Daiginjo uses between 35%-50% milled rice and is often considered the premium type of sake. It goes through various brewing processes that lead to an intense aroma and full-body, yet subtle flavor.
Also called “cloudy sake” nigori uses coarsely pressed rice that gives it a creamy white color. The flavor of nigori sake ranges greatly but is most often a mildly sweet flavor with a fruity aroma.
Honjozo sake uses the same ratio of milled rice as junmai but has brewers alcohol added into the mix. This makes the flavor not quite as potent but rather light and smooth with a mild fragrance.
Differences Between Hot and Cold Sake
Sake can be served either hot or cold, but not all types of sake should be served both ways. Junmai and Ginjo sake are both partial to being served hot to mask the acidity and keep the potent flavor from overwhelming.
The biggest caution to take when ordering hot sake is to specify which type of sake is used. Many restaurants advertise “hot sake” without specifying the type. This is because cheap sake is usually warmed up to mask the bitterness.
While both of these types of sake are typically used for hot sake, they can be chilled as well. Chilled sake is the best way to detect the full range of flavors and aroma. Premium sake is almost never served hot but rather chilled or room temperature.
Sake is a very complex drink that, despite only having a few ingredients, can take on a huge array of flavors. From a fruity and fragrant chilled ginjo sake to a rich, full-bodied hot junmai, the flavor of sake can’t be summed up by a single taste.
If you’re curious to try it out, head to your local Japanese restaurant and try out a few different types of sake. You’ll quickly notice that some may have little aroma but taste very rich and nutty while others will smell like an actual fruit yet have a very light, pleasant flavor.