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The fundamentals of sake tasting for nonprofessionals


There are professionals who taste sake, just as there are professionals who taste wine. The judging of the aroma and flavor of sake is called kikizake (sake tasting). But you don’t have to be a professional to try your hand at kikizake.


There is no point using the strict demerit system in judging sake. That can be left to the professionals. The main goal for us as nonprofessionals is to appreciate and enjoy sake, to seek out the sake we like, and to discover fine new varieties of sake.


Appearance, aroma, taste
In judging sake, the three important aspects to consider are appearance, aroma, and taste — that is, how the brew affects the eyes, nose, and tongue.


First, pour some sake into a white sake cup. This is how the appearance of the sake is judged. Points to look for are transparency, color, and viscosity. There should be no abnormal cloudiness, of course, but one should look for color. Sake color covers a considerable range — anything from colorless to amber.


Next, consider aroma. Bring the sake cup close to your nose and sniff. There could be a sweet smell like that of a flower or a refreshing citrus scent. There could also be the smell of rice or other grains.


Then sip the sake and hold it in the mouth. Don’t drink it down immediately. After taking a small quantity of sake into your mouth, spread it around on the tongue while lightly inhaling. The aroma observed at this point is called the kichōka (underlying aroma).


After drinking some sake, the aroma reaches the nose from inside the mouth. The aroma as perceived in this way is called kōchūka or fukumika (retronasal aroma). Sake is judged according to how it is perceived overall in terms of the three aspects mentioned above: appearance, aroma, and taste.


It should be noted that the aroma of sake transitions. In the first place, there is the aroma detected immediately when sake is poured into the sake cup. This is called the tachika. It is typically a fruity, sweet smell.


Next, there is the aroma that results from contact with the air. This is the smell that arises when the aromatic constituents of the sake react with oxygen in the air.


Finally, there is the nokorika (residual aroma). This is the aroma that comes from the small amount of sake left in the sake cup. It is sometimes described as having elements of spice or mushroom aromas, developed during the ripening of the sake.


Looking for sake to suit your palate
As mentioned above, we are not talking about professional sake tasting, so there is no point going out of our way to look for flaws. Rather, we should taste sake in order to find something that we can praise, a drink that “has a pleasant aroma” or “tastes refreshing,” for example.


So it’s important to taste sake from a personal perspective. Everyone has different preferences with regard to dry and sweet taste, or rich flavor versus light and refreshing. Look for sake that suits you.


Rice itself does not have an aroma, nor does it have flavors such as sourness. However, in the course of the complex process of sake brewing, rice acquires flavors that can be described as sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and astringent.


These flavors develop as the kōji-kin mold and kōbo yeast starter produce enzymes that act on the starch and protein in the rice. It is because of the complex interaction of these elements that sake can have such depth of flavor.


It is not a good idea to smoke or drink coffee before tasting sake. Anything that interferes with the sense of smell will make it impossible to discern the subtle flavors and aromas of sake. For the same reason, it is best to avoid other strong scents such as perfume as well.

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