Developing Your Sake Palate

Since my arrival to japan over one year ago, I randomly wandered onto the sake fast track.  Before moving to Japan I had decided to use the services of EPZ Enterprises to obtain a business license and import/export license.  My intention was to import wine to Japan from California.  Yoshi was my contact at EPZ.  He also happens to be an exporter of sake.


Within my first two weeks upon arriving to Japan, Yoshi had invited to a dinner with his sensei, John Gauntner.   John is widely regarded as the preeminent foreign expert and lecturer of sake.  A few days later, I accompanied Yoshi to the Sake 2020  kick-off event.  The Sake 2020 Project is a trade organization with the mission to unite the Japanese sake industry to promote the accessibility and enjoyment of sake worldwide.  It was a great  opportunity to meet key people in the industry.  With Yoshi’s inherent connections, I was able to get connected in this tightly closed  industry.


The timing of my arrival to Japan also coincided with the end of the brewing season.  This was also a time that many sake tasting events were happening in Tokyo.  It was the Spring of 2016 and I was attending massive tasting events open to the public as well as small industry only tasting events.  It was a great way to get connected with producers as they began to see me frequently, and I would recognize them too.


By the time I was attending these tasting events frequently, I had already visited a handful of kuras.  Again, it is not easy to gain access to the sake breweries particularly during their brewing season.  With Yoshi’s invitation, I was able to get a firsthand look at how sake is made.  We went to Katsayama in Sendai which is an impeccable brewery and produces some of the finest sake.  Then in Niigata we went to the following shuzos:  Takeda, Kondou, Shiokawa, Sasaiwai and Hakuryu in a span of two days.


All this time my palate for tasting sake was developing.  It was easy to enjoy, but the learning curve for my palate to distinguish what I was enjoying was developing.  A little over one year later, my palate for tasting sake has greatly developed.


Like wine, tasting sake involves using the following senses in this order:  look, smell and taste.  Most sake is clear.  To gain that clear water-like appearance, sake is filtered with charcoal.  Most sake are processed this way.  The charcoal does remove some of the natural flavors .  However can have a yellow tint sometimes, particularly if it is a muroka (non-charcoal filtered).  Aside from color, the viscosity of the sake can vary.  This is easier to detect by using glassware more akin to a wine glass.


Again like wine, aroma is a keep factor to tasting sake.  Much of our tasting sense is influenced through the nose.  Generally, certain categories of sake will typically be more aromatic than others.  For example, Daiginjo is usually very aromatic compared to Junmai.


Finally there is the tasting aspect.  This can be evaluated in stages.  There is the front end of when the sake first encounters the lips, tongue and mouth.  Some sake is very subtle.  For example some a low acidity honjozos in the classic Niigata style of clean and dry can be dangerously easy to drink.   Whereas a Junmai can often posses a bolder impact.


One of the better ways to learn about sake is obviously experimenting and tasting more.  Doing it slowly and conscientiously will hone the palate.  Also enjoying sake with friends is great way to expand your tasting horizons.  Keep on tasting.