Appreciating the subtle, ethereal, delicate notes of sake, and enjoying the sweet, dry or acidic components of its flavor profile come naturally. But sake can feel intimidating, especially when you have 40,000 to 50,000 brands to choose from. So how do you choose selections? By focusing on three easy-to-evaluate varieties — Junmai, Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo Namazake. And the best way to focus on those varieties is a sake tasting.
Hosting your first sake tasting can feel a bit intimidating, too. But it doesn’t have to. As long as you know the sake fundamentals, such as glassware, serving procedure and tasting method, you’ll breeze through and anticipate your next tasting session with excitement.
Sake styles to serve at a tasting
If you or your tasters have imbibed in the pleasure of sake, but haven’t explored its finer points, serve three styles during your first tasting — more than three tends to muddle the palates of those new to the sake experience. You don’t have to go big on price with your first sake tasting, but you do have to show diversity. Host your first tasting with styles that intimate the essence of the spirit:
1. Junmai, a pure rice wine without added distilled alcohol; a bit acidic with a robust, rich body
2. Ginjo, a style that often has distilled alcohol added; layered, complex flavor with a flowery nose and soft finish
3. Junmai Ginjo Namazake, a young, unpasteurized sake; light and brisk on the palate; must stay between 41F to 50F to prevent spoilage; refreshing and best served cold
Tasting order and how much
Go with a bold to light tasting order. For example, taste Junmai, Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo Namazake in that order. The amount of sake you need for a tasting ultimately depends on the number of tasters, but there is a formula you can follow:
- Every taster should have two full servings (two ounces per serving) of each selection.
- A 750ml bottle holds approximately 17 two-ounce servings.
- If you have 10 tasters (including yourself), you only need one 750ml bottle of each selection; however, tastings pique the palate and create the desire for more, so purchase two bottles of each selection — one for the tasting and one for the tasting “after party”
Glassware and accessories
Any glass is a good glass if it contains sake. That said, ceremonial sake serving vessels, crafted from cedar and called masu, represent prosperity. However, cedar wood alters the subtle notes of sake, so you should go with ochoko during a tasting. Made of ceramic, ochoko have concentric blue and white circles in their bottoms that facilitate examination of the sake’s color and a wide mouth to help evaluate the sake’s fragrance. If you don’t have access to ochoko, wine glasses and brandy snifters work well.
Similar to a wine tasting, you don’t want anything to distract from the sake. You simply want to “reset” the palate and minimize its fatigue so you and your tasters can experience the next style in all its glory, unencumbered by remnants of food flavors. So keep it simple. Crackers and breads work well, as the goal here is neutrality. Serve water between selections as well.
How to taste
The sake tasting process is similar to that of wine: see, swirl, sniff, sip, swish and swallow or spit. Both swallowing and spitting have their merits. On the one hand, you can only fully experience the pleasure of the finish if you swallow the sake. However, tasting just enough to detect all the elements of the flavor profile then spitting will quickly put the taste in context — your palate goes from an explosion of sensations to an abrupt stop, leaving an echo of the drink. If you choose to spit, go back to finish the selection after the tasting.
The ultimate rule of a sake tasting is to have fun. Tastings need not be formal unless you wish them to be. Prepare a pleasant meal for your guests after the tasting finishes. If your guests walk away happy, and with a little more sake knowledge than they had coming in, you’ve held a successful tasting. Congratulations.