Sake 101 – How to Select Sake

Last updated: June 6, 2017 

large selection of sake at Tokyo Central Costa Mesa
Chilled Sake Isle at Japanese Grocery Store

Thanks to the growing demand worldwide, many varieties of sake are available at retail and consumers can pick a product by their preference today. But how should we select sake? How can we find a product that we really like? Here are three easy steps we suggest you to follow when buying sake.

1. Know What You Want

Are you looking for sake for hot or cold serve? Do you prefer a sweeter note or full-body flavor? Do you know a type of sake (see detail) or a brand name you like? Are you looking for a gift? What is your budget?

Knowing your purpose and preference will definitely make your shopping easier. Serving temperature is an important element for selecting sake (see detail), and flavor matters the most. Other features such as ingredient, production method, brewery, region, size and/or price may affect your decision.

If you fell in love with a specific brew at a restaurant, don’t forget to take a note or picture!

2. Define Your Flavor

Experts say most Americans pick a sake product by package. That’s totally fine, but you may also want to have your eye on the content not just the outer appearance.

To define the taste of each product clearly and scientifically, the sake industry has adapted indices where a flavor is scaled in number. Following are three indices that are commonly used to describe sake flavor and data can be found on a label of many products.

1) Sake Meter Value (SMV)

Sake Meter Value or SMV indicates how sweet or dry the sake tastes.

The SMV ranges from -15 to +15 with ±0 in the middle point. Pure water is neutral and described as “SMV ±0.” Any sake on the plus side is described “dry” (drier than water), and the greater the number is the drier it tastes. Any sake on the minus side is “sweet” (sweeter than water), and the greater the number is the sweeter it tastes. That means SMV -15 may taste like candy! 🙂

2) Acidity

Sake contains lactic acids, citric acids and malic acids. These are important ingredients that compose the taste of sake. Acidity level ranges from 1.0 to 2.0, with a greater number being “richer” or “sharper.” It doesn’t mean a product tastes sour or acidic because its acidity level is higher.

Made from rice, sake has a sweet flavor by nature and relies on acids to mask the real residual sugar amount. A higher level of acidity can make a sweet taste drier than it actually is.

Please refer to this matrix prepared by Ozeki Sake to understand the relation between SMV and acidity.

3) Amino Acids (Umami)

Another index used to describe sake is amino acid. Yes, “umami” it is. Sake contains about 20 different amino acids including arginine, tyrosine, leucine and glutamic acid, and most products have an amino acid content of somewhere between 0.8 and 1.7 degrees. In combination of other elements, amino acid level affects umami and fragrance of sake.

Not easy to generalize the relation between amino acid level and flavor of sake, it is roughly said that a lower number represents a straight-forward or delicate sake with a lighter taste and a higher number does more complex with a richer taste and more umami.

The average amino acid level is 1.48 for junmai and 1.23 for ginjo (see the types of sake). This could indicate that sake made with a higher rice milling rate, such as gingo, yields a lower number and a lighter body. Again, this is a rough statement as amino acids could produce a complex flavor with other elements and people taste amino acids subjectively.

4) Label Example

Let’s take a sample label of sake and learn how to read it!

SMV, acidity, amino acid of sake
Click to Enlarge
This is a label of Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai brewed by Nanbu-Bijin, a popular brand in many countries. You can learn the following about the content from the label:

  • Brewed for cold serve (temperature 45 – 60F)
  • Slightly dry in flavor (SMV +5.0)
  • Medium in light/rich (acidity 1.5)
  • Less umami (amino acid 1.1)
  • Well-balanced, fair in all aspects according to the Flavor Chart
  • Features lively fresh aroma and clean flavor according to the text description

You also see the alcohol content, rice specification, rice remain ratio, type of yeast and water indicated on the label. It is great to have knowledge on these for deeper understanding, but we won’t go there in this article.

3. Ask an Expert

Another way to find a perfect sake product is to ask an expert. If you go to a store with large sake selection such as Japanese supermarkets, you will receive help and advice from its staff in selecting a product. Stores like BevMo and Whole Foods do carry some sake, but you are unlikely to find an expert there.

Though still limited, stores specialized in sake are an excellent source of information. You can check out online stores such as True Sake, Sake Social and SakeOne and inquire by email.

The sake industry has established the system to certify sake experts as “Kikisake-shi” or sake sommelier. The certifying system is administrated by Sake Service Institute (SSI) of Japan and has expanded to overseas. According to SSI, there are 11 accredited schools in Asia, Europe and the United States and 1468 non-Japanese are certified as Kikisake-shi by March 2017. They work at a restaurant, bar, store, brewery and distributor as a true sake professional.

Sake 101 Series:
*What is Sake and How to Drink it
*Types and Varieties of Sake
*How to Select Sake
*How to Store Sake and When it Expires
*Sake Cocktails and Beyond (coming soon)
*Ways to Master Sake (coming soon)

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