The Art of Enjoying and Appreciating Sake
What makes sake a unique drink is how delicate, nuanced, and subtle the flavours are – flavours that vary depending on the type of water used, type of rice used, production methods, and natural climate that the sake was brewed in.
This unique quality of sake makes for an intriguing experience for you to experiment with different serving temperatures, different serving vessels, different food pairings, and even different seasons and occasions!
Good Drinking Manners
Tasting a sake involves focusing on the aromas and flavours of the sake, which also means that you wouldn’t want any other strong smells like strong perfumes or colognes interfering with what your nose and tastebuds could perceive! It is generally recommended to steer clear of wearing heavily-scented perfumes or lotions if you know that you’ll be going for a sake tasting. You might also want to hold back on other foods or drinks with intense flavours or strong aromas that may interfere with the taste of the sake. Food pairing with sake, of course, is a different matter altogether (we’ll cover this in more detail in a bit). You’ll want to be sure that you’ll be able to fully appreciate your sake without the interference or confusion from external intense smells or flavours.
Now comes the matter of serving up the sake – pouring and receiving. While this is not an enforced formality, the observed etiquette is more a matter of having good table manners. When offering sake to someone, pour the sake from the decanter using both hands, with one hand holding the decanter and the other hand supporting the bottom.
If you’re on the receiving end of someone pouring sake for you, hold your sake cup with one hand, with the other hand supporting the bottom of the cup. After the sake has been poured, take a small sip before placing your cup back down. If you notice that your friend’s cup is empty, offer to pour sake for them in return. Pouring and receiving sake can be an important part of bonding moments and friendship forging!
If you are having sake at a sake bar or restaurant, it is also generally recommended for you to ask for yawaragi-mizu, which is water to be drunk as an accompaniment to your sake. Yawaragi means a calm or relaxed state in Japanese. Taking sips of water between tasting your sake can help serve as a palate cleanser and enhance the taste of the sake even further. It also helps to lower the alcohol amount in your body, and prevent you from falling ill from drinking too much sake. Requesting for yawaragi-mizu to accompany your sake also signals that you are here to taste and fully appreciate the sake, and not to simply chug to get drunk.
The temperature that a sake is served at can have a large impact on the experience that you have and the flavour that you drink. Many of us are probably used to drinking chilled sake, referred to as reishu, as that is the most common method of storage in our modern times. However, before the era of household refrigerators, warmed sake, which is called kanzake, was the conventional way of drinking sake. Warming up a sake allows more of the flavours and depth of the sake to open up and come through. Kanzake also allows the alcohol to be absorbed faster into the body compared to reishu, as the temperature of the alcohol is warmer. This means that you can get a quicker buzz from kanzake than you would with reishu, and you’ll also be able to better pace your drinking.
Experimenting with sake tasting at different temperatures is an exciting way to discover new dimensions and aspects of a sake, and also makes for more varied and interesting sake tasting experiences.
The cups that we drink from might be something that not many of us pay much attention to, but can also affect your tasting experience and how you receive the flavours and aromas of the sake as well. As with many things when it comes to the Japanese, no detail is too minute to be spared, and the shape, material, and design of the sake vessel are all factors to consider that play a role in the sake tasting experience too.
Let’s take a look at the different types of sake vessels and what they are used for:
The Art of Appreciating a Good Drink
What’s the difference between drinking and tasting? The difference is in the amount of consideration and attention paid to the drink. Tasting a sake means paying attention to the aromas, the flavours, the texture, and the structure of the sake. Much like any other good drink or a beautiful girl, sake is a drink that reveals more of its uniqueness to you when given the right attention and appreciation.
Sake tasting focuses on paying attention to three main characteristics of the drink:
Aroma: Before sipping, we can use our noses to pay attention to what the aroma of the sake reveals to us. Take note of all the smells and nuances that your nose can detect – from acidic fruity notes, to umami notes, herbs, or even truffle mushrooms. The possibilities stretch as far as your vocabulary can! How long the sake has been left out after pouring can affect its aroma as much as its flavour too. Some sakes have aromas that open up over time with some airing, while some have aromas that get more faint and subtle with time.
Colour / Appearance: A common misconception is that sake can only be clear or colourless, however, that couldn’t be further from reality! The colour and hue can vary depending on how it has been treated or whether it has been aged, while the clarity of the sake depends on the method by which the sake’s fermenting mash (also known as moromi) has been pressed and filtered. For example, coarsely filtered sake may be translucent with umami sediments in it (instead of clear and transparent), while aged sake may appear to have a slight golden or yellow tint (instead of colourless)! We can infer quite a bit about a sake just by observing the appearance of the drink, and that adds to the fun and excitement of a sake tasting session.
Taste: The taste of a sake could also change and evolve with different serving temperatures, different food pairings, and even different serving vessels! When tasting the sake, pay attention to different elements such as:
- The flavour components (for example, perhaps you may taste layers of pears, Japanese melon, or umami flavours)
- Balance of the sake, most notably, whether the taste and flavour of the sake is in harmony with its aroma. A balanced sake would have an aroma and taste that is well-matched in intensity and flavour profile.
- Physical aspects of the sake, such as its texture and viscosity.
Above all, the act of drinking and tasting sake should be enjoyable for you, and if perhaps it all becomes too complex, you need only answer one fundamental question – do you enjoy the taste of the sake?
A Framework to Assessing the Flavour Profile of a Sake
Generally, sake can be classified into four major flavour profiles – fruity, matured, light and smooth, and full-bodied.
We can also refer to these broad categorizations to pair sake with different foods that will complement the flavour profile as well.
Pairing with Food
Sake, being a national product from Japan, pairs naturally well with Japanese cuisine, and the flavours of the sake can help to enhance the flavours and deliciousness of a meal as well. As a general guide, you can also refer to the four major sake flavour profiles to decide on a food pairing to go with your sake and vice versa.
There are many different ways to enjoy and appreciate sake – the process is almost like an art itself, with a great degree of thought and consideration that goes to every possible detail that makes the experience worth cherishing. I hope that you, dear reader, can also discover the fun and enjoyment in paying attention, experimentation, consideration, and thoughtfulness towards a simple joy like tasting sake. Because it’s not just about the quieter, simple joys in life, but cherishing the simple joys that make life beautiful!
Till the next time, happy sipping!
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