Like many of the best things in life, sake is both very complicated and surprisingly simple. One can spend hours weaving through the differences in levels of milling, purity and local water quality, debate the various 'levels' produced by the same brewery... or, you can simply take a sip and think: 'Oh my, this amazing.'
I decidedly belong to the second camp. My introduction to sake began once I started working full time in Japan and needed to entertain clients and partners. Through trying what others had selected and sampling them, I came to appreciate that there were in fact differences between various types of sake, something that gets lost when only exposed to the cheap and cheerful brands that usually make it to most Japanese restaurants abroad.
When I tried to make sense of what I was tasting by looking up tips on the internet or reading menus, the array of information, complicated names and hard-to-read kanji labels were not much help. Through trial and error, I found the total basics one needs to know to figure out what they like and have a fun sake-tasting experience.
In the roughest sense, sake can be divided into two categories: dry (karakuchi) and sweet (amakuchi). Dry sake has a clearer, brighter taste and is usually served cold, while the other style is more fragrant and full-bodied (but not necessarily sweet) and is better suited to being served heated up or at room temperature. There are then variations between these two extremes, dry and rich (still light but has more fragrance) which can also be drunk at room temperature, and sweet and clean (less powerful body) which I have found does well chilled.
Now, sake (like wine) is divided into a whole bunch of categories depending on how the brewery processes the rice used for fermentation. The quality (and price!) basically boil down to how much of the rice is polished off. The more 'cleaned up' it is, the clearer, and often pricier, it will be. The whole list of categorizations is a pain to remember, so the basic four are:
Daiginjo: Super polished rice, so only the center of the grain is used. Light, subtle and usually the most expensive, but often worth it. I find that these do well cold.
Ginjo: Slightly less polished (about 50% of the rice is cleaned off) and can be both chilled or room temperature.
Junmai: This doesn't have any specific milling percentage, but it must be made from 100% rice as opposed to...
Honjuzo: Which is about 30% milled and has a bit of distilled alcohol added to set off the flavour.
There are other less refined types but I will ignore them (sorry) as they can be found outside of Japan. One word you might hear quite a bit is 'jizake', especially outside of Tokyo. This means 'local sake' and while sometimes a bit rougher than expected, it's worth a try as it can be difficult to find elsewhere.
So, now armed with all this knowledge, it is time for the fun part: sake tasting!
Restaurants are, on the whole, not the best option when trying to figure out what you like, as the expense of trying each one (basically blind, as even good Japanese speakers have issues reading the names of sake) quickly adds up. Places specializing in sake tasting, such as Kurand, in Tokyo and Ponshukan in Niigata, will allow you to taste a large variety without breaking the bank. You will also have access to rabid sake-enthusiasts, who can point you in the right direction.
Start out by choosing (or getting a recommendation) for one very dry type and one sweet type. This will give you a base to figure out what basic palate you like. You may be surprised. With my epic sweet tooth I thought that sweet brews would be my favourite, however this turned out not to be the case at all, as my preferred sakes are all dry as the Sahara. If you like the sweet but find it a bit cloying, try a clean and sweet type next. If you like the dry but feel something is missing, the rich and sweet may be more to your taste. In addition, warmed sake can be a bit of an acquired taste, so trying it cold at first might be a good idea. Make sure to sip some cold water between each taste, to cleanse your palate and stay hydrated.
Once you have a basic idea of which type you like, you can have fun exploring. I like doing a 'tour of Japan', starting by trying sake from Hokkaido and working my way down from there. Thanks to this method, I figured out that mid-northern (Niigata and Nagano) sakes are my favorite. Or, if you like, just go by which label looks the prettiest. If you are serious, make a note when you find something you enjoy, and see if a pattern emerges.
Have fun, and happy sake tasting!
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