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What Does Sake Taste Like?

| Taylor Markarian

Table of contents

Trying sake just once won’t give you a good idea what sake tastes like. Why? Because there are literally thousands of ways to make Japan’s national beverage. Some sake are sweet and fruity, while others are dry and earthy. That’s because there are a number of factors that can affect aroma and flavor profiles, from the rice it’s made with to the temperature at which it’s served.

Factors that affect sake taste

Sake taste is influenced by everything that happens prior to brewing, during brewing and after brewing. Here are a couple of factors that make a difference. (Check out the Sake Guide for a complete rundown on what sake is made of and how it’s made.)

Rice polishing ratio

All sake is made from rice that has been polished. How much of the rice grain’s exterior is milled away is represented by its rice polishing ratio. This percentage — along with the ingredients — determines sake grade.

The outer layers of the rice grain contain proteins and fats that can result in rich, full-bodied, umami-filled sake. Generally, sake made with rice that has been highly polished tends to taste lighter and cleaner, with fruity and floral profiles.

Junmai daiginjo and daiginjo sake have a rice polishing ratio of at least 50%, meaning at least 50% of the rice grain has been milled away. For junmai ginjo and ginjo sake, the RPR is at least 60%. Honjozo has a minimum 70% RPR, and junmai has no set RPR, making it one of the most versatile categories of sake in terms of taste.

Koji rice

Koji rice, or rice that has been inoculated with koji spores, is central to sake brewing. How the koji spores spread over and through the rice grains impacts sake taste. The word “souhazegata” describes koji that has covered the entire surface of the rice and seeped deep into the core. The word “tzukihazegata” describes koji rice that is sparsely covered. The latter usually produces cleaner, more delicate-tasting sake like ginjo or daiginjo.

Brewing method

Daishichi Brewing Company Kimoto method
Courtesy of Daishichi Brewing Company.

Some sake is brewed the quick way (“sokujo-moto”) by adding lactic acid directly to the mash. Other brewing methods, like kimoto and yamahai, take longer because they wait for lactic acid to build up naturally. Sake made via these more time-consuming, laborious methods usually has bolder flavors.

Pasteurization

Most sake goes through two rounds of heat pasteurization before being put on the market. Pasteurization eliminates bacteria that might alter the sake’s flavor or quality. Some sake skip one or both of these pasteurization rounds, however. These types of sake — “namanama,” “namachozo” and “namazume” — end up tasting brighter, livelier, fresher and more acidic.

Storage materials

Taru barrels in Choryo Brewing Company
Taru barrels in Choryo Brewing Company. Photo by Rina Liggett.

Back in the Edo period (1603-1868), wooden barrels called “taru” were used to transport sake. Today, some breweries still use wooden barrels to hold sake for a few weeks at some point in the brewing process to infuse the liquid with a cedar-like flavor. Most of the time, however, sake is matured in bottles or enamel-lined tanks.

Serving methods

Even after brewing and bottling, there are several factors that influence sake flavor. Knowing how to drink and serve sake is very important — and yes, there are a lot of ways to do it! Serving temperature and serving vessels are key things to consider.

Sake temperature

One of the things that makes sake so special is the fact that it can be served at a wide range of temperatures, from 41 F to 131 F. The same sake can taste different depending on if it’s served chilled, room temperature, warm or hot. Chilling sake gives it a more brisk, refreshing taste, while heating it up can enhance the aroma and mellow the flavor.

So, how do you determine the perfect temperature for sake? For starters, Tippsy product pages have a temperature bar on them that provides recommended serving temperatures. Oftentimes, labels on the backs of sake bottles will also have this information listed, though it’s not required. But if you don’t have these reference materials in front of you, there is a general rule: Lighter, more delicate sake should be served on the cooler side, while full-bodied sake can be served at higher temperatures. There are always exceptions to any rule, but for the most part, it’s a good one to follow.

Serving vessels

Various kinds of shuki

Craftsmen all over the world produce specialty drinking vessels for all types of alcohol, from beer to whisky. Sake is no exception. The purpose of these unique designs is to enhance the aroma and even the flavor of the beverage.

There are various kinds of sake cups. Probably the most well-known sake ware is the “ochoko,” a small ceramic cup with a narrow rim, partnered with a “tokkuri,” or sake decanter. A little bit larger than the ochoko, but made of the same or similar material, is the “guinomi” sake cup. The size of the rim can affect the perception of acidity; wider rims can enhance acidity, while narrower rims can minimize it. One of the most interesting vessels is the “masu,” which is a cubic box made of Japanese wood that imparts its flavor on the sake held inside. What many people don’t know is that chilled or room temperature sake can also be served in stemware like a wine glass, which magnifies the aroma. Check out our sake ware to find your new favorite!

What alcohol does sake taste like?

Those who have never tried sake before may have a natural tendency to want to compare it to other types of alcohol that are more readily available in the West. Sake is so diverse that lovers of various spirits can enjoy it!

Sake vs. wine

People are wont to call sake “rice wine.” It’s true that sake can be drunk from wine glasses, and many sake can have fruity tones like white wines do. Still, sake and wine are fundamentally different.

The average alcohol content of sake is between 15% and 16%, while the ABV of wine is between 11% and 12%. The former is made from rice, while the latter is made from grapes. Wine is also naturally much more acidic than sake is. However, there is one type of acid that sake has in spades: succinic acid. This makes sake much better at pairing with food — especially seafood!

Sake vs. vodka

First of all, sake is not liquor. This may come as a surprise to those who have only ever had sake as a shot — which is not how sake is supposed to be drunk, by the way. The typical ABV of vodka, which can be distilled from potatoes, corn, sorghum and even fruit, is around 40%. That’s more than double the alcohol content of sake, and that fact definitely comes through in the spirit’s taste. Aside from being more boozy, though, the flavor of vodka is much more neutral than that of sake unless it is purposely infused with other flavors.

Sake vs. whiskey

Similar distinctions apply to American whiskey and Scotch whisky, which also generally have a 40% ABV and are distilled from grains such as barley or rye. Whisky is a dark-colored spirit with amber hues and a full body. It has a malted, smoky, caramel-like flavor. The only sake type that can be thought of as somewhat similar is “koshu,” or aged sake. But on the whole, the two beverages are very different.

Sake vs. beer

Sake is made from fermented rice, while beer is made from fermented barley or wheat combined with hops. Most beers fall within a range of 5%-14% ABV, which is not as high as most sake. They’re both craft brews and not spirits, but their taste isn’t comparable at all. (But Japan has plenty of beers of their own to try!)

Sake vs. soju vs. shochu

Soju and shochu are clear, distilled spirits from Korea and Japan, respectively. They can both be distilled from foods such as grains and sweet potatoes, and the finished products are somewhat similar to vodka in taste. Soju’s alcohol content usually ranges between 16%-25%, while shochu usually has a range of 20%-45%. Interestingly, shochu can also be made from distilled sake lees left over from the sake brewing process, but they are ultimately different beverages.

Sake flavor profiles

There are multiple sake organizations, thus there are multiple ways to categorize sake flavor profiles. In this article, we’ll address how both the Sake Service Institute and Tippsy define sake flavors.

SSI’s 4 flavor profiles

The Sake Service Institute evaluates sake flavor profiles by aroma and body. Let’s explore their four categories.

Kunshu

“Kunshu” is defined as sake that is fragrant and light. The sake grades that fall into this category are mostly floral and fruity daiginjo and ginjo, so they are usually best served chilled.

Nanbu Bijin “Tokubetsu Junmai”
Nanbu Bijin “Tokubetsu Junmai”

This special junmai by Nanbu Bijin was the winning sake at the 2017 International Wine Challenge. Served chilled, it has a wonderfully juicy, fruity flavor with a tangerine-like aroma.

Soshu

“Soshu” is sake that is light and smooth; not as aromatic as kunshu, but potentially just as silky and clean-tasting. Honjozo and “futsushu” (ordinary or table sake) tend to be sorted into this category, and can be served at a range of temperatures.

Kikusui “Junmai Ginjo”
Kikusui “Junmai Ginjo”

Clean and dry, this junmai ginjo by Kikusui Brewing Company puts forward hints of orange. It is smooth and slightly sweet, but elegantly restrained.

Junshu

“Junshu” mainly encapsulates full-bodied sake such as savory junmai, kimoto and yamahai. These sake types are considered by SSI to be less fragrant than others, but bolder in taste. These types of sake can usually be served at room temperature or hotter.

Tengumai “Junmai”
Tengumai “Junmai”

Shata Brewing Company crafted this sake with Japanase fantasy creatures of mountain forests called “tengu” in mind. The flavor profile is fittingly earthy with a touch of nuttiness. Serve warm or room temperature.

Jukushu

The last, of course, is the fragrant and full-bodied “jukushu” category. SSI mostly reserves this category for aged sake, which is robust, rich and complex.

Yuho “Rhythm of the Centuries”
Yuho “Rhythm of the Centuries”

This aged junmai kimoto is rich and dry, with deep, round fruity flavors. It boasts an umami that is perfectly suited to pairing with hearty, salty meals like tonkotsu ramen.

Tippsy’s 4 flavor profiles

At Tippsy, we have our own way of sorting sake, which you can see by taking a look at the unique interactive taste metrics grid on every product page. We use a classification method that relies on SMV (sake meter value) and acidity levels. In Japanese, SMV is called “nihonshudo,” and is a way of indicating how dry or sweet a sake is. Positive numbers indicate drier sake, and negative numbers indicate sweeter, smoother sake.

Light and dry

Many sake that have a crisp taste, light body and dry delivery fall in the daiginjo and ginjo categories, but Tippsy’s Light and Dry section also features plenty of honjozo, and even junmai!

Jozen “Aqua”
Jozen “Aqua” with a glass
Photo by Taylor Markarian.

This pale blue, translucent bottle by Shirataki Brewing Company suits the light, clean mineral flavor of this junmai. There is a hint of melon that follows, and at +7.0 SMV, it is definitely dry.

Light and sweet

When you want sake that’s sweet but you don’t feel like taking on too much flavor, visit our Light and Sweet collection.

Mutsu Hassen “Pink Label”
Mutsu Hassen “Pink Label” with a glass
Photo by Taylor Markarian.

Right away, this ginjo by Hachinohe Brewing Company offers a sugary aroma on the nose. Its flavor is reminiscent of cotton candy; it’s not cloying, but is instead rather clean.

Rich and dry

Rich, dry sake has a more robust and bold flavor profile. You’ll find a lot of junmai in our Rich and Dry section, but there is also a fair number of daiginjo and ginjo as well.

Tentaka “Hawk in the Heavens”
Tentaka “Hawk in the Heavens” with a hotdog
Tentaka “Hawk in the Heavens” served warm in an “ochoko” sake cup. Perfect for an outdoor BBQ with vegan “hot dogs”! Photo by Taylor Markarian.

Tentaka Brewing Company’s “Hawk in the Heavens” is very dry with notable acidity. It gives off an earthy, mushroom aroma and a savory, ricey taste.

Rich and sweet

Tippsy’s Rich and Sweet collection is home to myriad flavored sake, such as yuzu and plum. You’ll also find nigori and other sake types mixed in.

Kikumasamune “Kinushiro” Nigori
Kikumasamune “Kinushiro” Nigori with a noodle
The sweetness of Kikumasamune “Kinushiro” Nigori is a fantastic compliment to spicy curry noodles with tofu and veggies. Photo by Taylor Markarian.

This nigori by Kikumasamune Brewing Company is a lovely representation of nigori sake. It has a creamy mouthfeel and it’s sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. The strong aroma and taste of banana is front and center, with a hint of melon.

Sake recommendations by tasting notes

Within these flavor profiles, there are many possible tasting notes. Here are the major taste descriptors to pay attention to.

Earthy and mineral

Sake that can be described as earthy often contains a lot of umami and can even offer mushroom-like notes. Serving it warm is a pleasant way to experience it. Some sake also have a flavor reminiscent of mineral water, which is a different kind of earthiness. When served chilled, sake with a mineral quality can taste rather clean, while warming it up can mellow that taste.

Kurosawa “Junmai”
Kurosawa “Junmai”

This junmai by Kurosawa Brewing Company was brewed using the laborious kimoto method. As such, it has a full body marked by earthy and mineral tones. Enjoy this smooth sake with an equally rich meal.

Fruity and floral

A vast amount of sake possesses fruity aromas and flavors, such as melon, apple, pear and more. Floral tones are also common. This has a lot to do with the kind of yeast used. A large portion of fruity and floral sake are ginjo and daiginjo.

Wakatake “Onikoroshi” Junmai Daiginjo
Wakatake “Onikoroshi” Junmai Daiginjo

“Onikoroshi” is a crowd favorite. This junmai daiginjo by Omuraya Brewing Company is made with three different kinds of rice. One can detect a host of fruity flavors, and it is neither too dry nor too sweet.

Nutty and spiced

One of the benefits of not milling away too much of the rice grain during polishing is the range of flavors that can be coaxed from it. Junmai and other full-bodied sake can possess aromas and flavors such as walnut and chestnut.

Nihonsakari “Junmai”
Nihonsakari “Junmai”

This nutty junmai by Nihonsakari also has an herbaceous quality, creating a very earthy flavor profile. Try it cold or warm.

Ricey

Sake is made from rice, so it seems like a given that many would have a rice flavor. Still, this flavor is more pronounced in some bottles than in others.

Hakutsuru “Junmai”
Hakutsuru “Junmai”

This sturdy junmai by Hakutsuru Brewing Company boasts rich toasted and rice notes. It’s an easy choice for those who wish to embrace sake’s principle ingredient.

Lactic

Some sake have a lactic taste that may be described as milky or buttery.

Hakutsuru “Sayuri”
Hakutsuru “Sayuri”

Nigori such as “Sayuri” often fall into this taste category due to their luxurious mouthfeel and thicker texture. The delightful taste of cream and strawberries will bring a smile to your face.

Grassy and woody

There is a whole subcategory of sake dedicated to the essence of wood: taru sake. It’s ideal for those who love the rejuvenating yet calming aroma of the forest.

Choryo “Yoshinosugi no Taru Sake”
Choryo “Yoshinosugi no Taru Sake”

Choryo Brewing Company’s cedar-flavored futsushu also has a touch of sweetness to it. Take in its wonderfully silky texture and its refreshing aroma.

Caramel and brown sugar

These flavor characteristics often pop up in koshu. Allowing sake to age for a few years can give it a rich, malted flavor profile. Some robust junmai can also carry a caramel-like flavor.

Hanagaki “Kimoto”
Hanagaki “Kimoto”

This junmai kimoto has been aged for a year and a half, and as a result, it has developed warming notes of honey, caramel and nuts. Serve it warmed or at room temperature and get cozy!

Flavored sake

If we’re talking about sake taste, we can’t forget flavored sake! Sake that has been infused with real fruit, like plum or yuzu sake, are delicious for dessert, aperitifs or even brunch. Flavored sake is also great for making creative cocktails.

Tsukasabotan “Yuzu”
Tsukasabotan “Yuzu”

Yuzu is a beloved Japanese fruit with a lemon and pine flavor. Enjoy a glass of this bright, zingy sake by Tsukasabotan Brewing Company as an aperitif.

Common questions about sake taste

We’ve given you a lot of information so far. Here are a few more commonly asked questions you may have.

What does bad sake taste like?

If sake is stored improperly, like being left in the heat, or if it sits for months after being opened, the flavors may change and degrade. This can result in off-tastes like vinegar or mildew. Read our blog post “Does Sake Go Bad?” for more in-depth information. Other reasons for sake tasting harsh can include overheating or the use of additives in non-premium sake.

What does a sake bomb taste like?

A sake bomb is what it’s called when people dump a shot of sake into a glass of beer. It’s a pastime of American nightlife, but this is not the way one should drink sake. What a sake bomb tastes like depends on the beer and sake used, but basically, it’s just a way to dilute your beer and waste sake. As mentioned earlier, sake should not be shot like liquor, but sipped and savored like wine.

What does nigori sake taste like?

Nigori, or coarsely filtered sake, still contains some rice sediments left over from the brewing process. Expectedly, rice is one of the most prominent flavors that comes through. This can also give it a grainy or creamy texture. Nigori also tends to be sweet; some are more subtle while others can take on big fruit flavor, like strawberry.

What does cooking sake taste like?

In many Western kitchens, wine is used to add tangy, sweet flavor to dishes such as pasta, chicken and more. In Japan, cooking with sake is extremely common. Cooking sake is different from regular drinking sake when it comes to rice polishing, ingredients and alcohol content. In many cases, salt is added to cooking sake to give it a more concentrated flavor, which in turn adds umami to recipes.

There is no singular taste that describes sake

When it comes to flavor, sake runs the gamut. If you’ve tried sake once at a hibachi grill and think you know everything about what sake tastes like, think again! Part of the fun of drinking sake is discovering your favorite type and finding the best way to serve it. Browse Tippsy’s many category pages to sample flavor profiles of all kinds. Each one has its own pleasant surprises.

Resources

“Sake Adviser Certificate Course.” Sake School of America, 2020.

“Learn About Alcohol Content in Wine: Highest to Lowest ABV Wines.” MasterClass, 2021.
https://www.masterclass.com/articles/learn-about-alcohol-content-in-wine-highest-to-lowest-abv-wines

“The Complete Vodka Guide.” VinePair, 2022.
https://vinepair.com/explore/category-type/vodka/

“The Complete Scotch Guide.” VinePair, 2022.
https://vinepair.com/explore/category-type/scotch/

Iijima, Anna Lee C. “Shochu vs Soju: A Quick Guide.” WineEnthusiast, 2022.
https://www.winemag.com/2022/03/22/shochu-vs-soju/

Lanark, D.W. “SAKE 101: SMV.” SakeTimes, 2021.
https://en.sake-times.com/learn/sake-101-smv

Kellerman, Aliza. “Where The Hell The Sake Bomb Came From: A Lesson In Irony.” VinePair, 2015.
https://vinepair.com/wine-blog/where-the-hell-the-sake-bomb-came-from-a-lesson-in-irony/

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