The Tasting Game

So how do you taste sake? Depends on your definition of taste. (Does that sound remotely like a Clintonian question?) Is taste flavor? Is taste feeling? Is taste simply tasting? Wow – this is spinning out of control right off the bat. Is taste a sense? Is smelling tasting? Is tasting smelling? What about hearing – is that part of tasting? How about seeing is that tasting? Is tasting just tasting? What about ESP? Can you communicate with a sake that you are tasting? (Sixth Sense – I see rice people) Or can you listen, look, feel and taste all in one fell swoop? Professionally? Unprofessionally? Recreationally? Spiritually? Legally? Illegally? Ethically? Judiciously? Prudently? Effectively? Ahhhhhhhh effectively! How best can we taste effectively? (That depends on your definition of effective!)

There are a myriad of ways to taste sake! Some of us are paid professionals and we must adhere to certain “practice norms” and some of us are recreational and we must adhere to whatever floats our boat! There is however one massive common bond between the two – consistency! If you taste for taste’s sake – you must be consistent. And therein rests the most important key to learning about tasting sake.

Let me go back in time to when I first realized that sake could taste like several things! (uh huh – you still hear some of your friends to this day who will say “all sake tastes the same to me.” – I was there too!) But voila – that one day came when I realized that all brews did not taste the same, and as such I needed to explain why. So for me taste became many things – the flavor, the feeling, the finish, the start, the body, the movement, the acidity, the mystery (yes the mystery – some brews are so damn flat that there is no mystery whatsoever), the overall drinkability etc. I realized that if I wanted to fully speak to a brew then I would need to know a certain vocabulary that people would relate to – so I took up Pig Latin. “his-Tay i-say ood-gay” (Well the Pig Latin worked for the hour that I was loaded and laughed my ear-ray off, but proved to be an exceptionally poor choose for describing a beverage which was already allusive enough.)

I discovered that the best tastings that I had were the ones where I used the same glasses and the same temperature point. (Ah-ha! You sensing any consistency here?) Because it was only then that I could “compare” and that gave me the amo to speak to the differences and the similarities of each sake. My pleasure with my discovery was short lived. What if my consistency in glassware and temperature did not translate to how others tasted the exact same sakes? Meaning – just because I tasted out of a certain glass or cup that didn’t mean others did as well (understanding that vessel size and shape has a great deal of influence over the feeling and flavor of a sake – as in wine and beer-specific glasses.) I could not force everybody to drink out of the same glass. So it dawned on me to create a new tasting method that was never tried in the sake world – I would always use three different glasses for each sake. Three different shaped glasses would give me an approximation of flavors and feelings that would be achieved by fellow tasters. It’s similar to an average! And from that day on I have always tasted sakes from three different glasses to produce my tasting notes.

The three glasses are as follows: 1) the smallest is an O’choko – that’s right – the small ceramic cups used for hot sake, as so many people still enjoy their brews no matter the category or style out of these teeny tiny receptacles I wanted to keep this as part of the group, 2) a mid-sized sake pub glass similar to a short juice glass, and 3) a Chardonnay glass. Three different sized mouths, sides, and thicknesses which all produce three different sets of aromas, textures, flavors, and overall drinking experiences. And then I combined the notes in one “catch all,“ tasting summary. But I do this professionally. Must you drink out of three different glasses? Heck no! BUT I would strongly recommend it at least once. You will be fascinated (or not!) with how each glass produces a different tasting story – and take note of things like sweetness and acidity as these are enhanced and muted by different sized chambers.

Okay - so you are not a freak like me – what should you do? I say pick a glass that feels good to you! Not too small – not to big – just “Goldilocks” right. And make this your go-to glass when tasting and comparing sakes. Get comfortable with this vessel. In fact try drinking wine out of it and beer too. Why? To see what it does to these other beverages – does it make the wine drink more acidic – does it make the beer taste sweeter. See where I am going here? Make this glass a part of your exploration process – or hell – go crazy and try the three glass system.

The perfect time to taste is at 10:00AM. No kidding! This is when your palate is in peak shape during the day. In a word it is the time that your palate is most receptive to taste and feeling as your taste buds have yet been polluted by coffee, food, and anger! (Yes anger and emotions have a huge bearing on taste – the enzymes in your mouth go crazy to massive mood swings and as such affect your taste! Thus, you could taste the exact same two sakes two days in a row under the exact same conditions and they would taste quite different all together. – Lesson #1 Don’t get pissed off before tasting good sake – Lesson #2 don’t get pissed on good sake and try to drive - ) The bottom line is to taste whenever the opportunity presents itself – But if you do taste after a meal – have a good swish and swirl with water to clean the pesto out of your tasting zone.

Do the words “chugging” or “slamming” or “bombing” have anything to do with tasting sake. Nope! Not really. Well okay – whatever you want to do. If you can taste a sake bomb then fire away! Just kidding. But this does highlight a very important component of tasting sake. Make certain each sip is generally the same size, especially when comparing two or three brews simultaneously. Don’t take a massive sip of one sake then a small pinch of the other. Don’t gulp one brew and peck at the other. Think consistent and keep the sips similar, especially if you are spitting. (Yes – it’s not a crime to taste without drinking!)

The final helpful hint for “consistency” is the temperature of the brew. There are two schools here – taste room temperature, which is professional, and taste chilled which is recreational. When I write my reviews I must taste at a temperature that most consumers will be drinking the brew at – meaning why write a room temp review for chilled sake drinkers? There are many factors that make these two temperature points drink differently – many! And yes sakes do taste differently at different temperatures. For the home taster I recommend tasting semi-chilled! Meaning take a brew or brews out of the fridge about ten or fifteen minutes before tasting. Be consistent!

Here in bullet point form is how I taste a sake:
  • Open the bottle and smell the “bottle nose” – the air that is trapped in the bottle for up to 6-12 months – which at times exudes an aroma that is never replicated in the glass. Sort of fun, but definitely not necessary.
  • Pour in the glass – listen to the liquid – does it sound thick and glug glug heavy? Does it pour fast and clean – this is a good indicator of how the brew will drink.
  • Look at the glass – check to see if the fluid is pristine clean – crystal clear or has some hue to it. This is also a good indicator of how the brew will taste. You may also look for legs in this capacity as well.
  • Smell the glass from afar. This is a secondary aroma – if your brew is floral or musky or fruity you will detect this from a distance.
  • Toss your nose into the glass. This is the primary aroma. Focus on one nostril first then the other. Really try to shut down the other nostril, as this will make you concentrate and will shed more light on the aroma profile. If you cannot shut one nostril down or highlight one over the other then place the non-nostril on the outer edge of the glass – this produces an isolation that you are looking for. Then use both nostrils together in one long drag and the several short sniffs.
  • Bring the glass to your lips and shut those eyes! I do this – you do not have to, but remember the sense game – when you shut down one the others are enhanced – sort of like kissing!
Taste! Take the fluid in and you can do the following:
  • Hold in palate then swallow.
  • Hold in palate and swish and chew (like wine).
  • Hold in palate and aerate – as in take in oxygen and bubble the brew.
  • Don’t hold and just allow brew to go from tip to tail.
  • In all cases make certain that after you swallow to keep mouth closed and exhale through your nose – to collapse all flavor on the palate.
Think! Drink the sake in segments:
  • The initial impact
  • The flow or movement of the sake
  • The middle mouth
  • The finish
  • The tail
  • The aftertaste
Ponder! Certain attributes to look for:
  • The overall taste
  • The overall feeling
  • The flavor profile
  • The tingle of acidity – where?
  • The texture
  • The ups and downs
  • The strength
  • The “mystery”
  • Does the brew drink like it smells?
  • The striking feature
  • The balance
Conclude! After several sips define:
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • What you like – personally
  • What you do not like – personally
  • What others would like
  • What others would not like
  • Overall drinkability
  • BALANCE
I will conclude with some advice for those who lament “I never know what to say!” First off remember that there is no right or wrong! As ol’Beau says YOU ARE THE CHAMPION OF YOUR OWN PALETE! How could somebody say to you “No! that is not right!” “You do not taste that! Impossible!”? They can’t and won’t! It’s all personal experience – say no more. But if you’re still hung up on the “I don’t know how to put things into words” or the “I don’t like getting all –‘smells like flowers and tastes like honey in a grapefruit’- with my explanation” then don’t sweat it. Can you throw a 50 yard touchdown bomb? Can you hit a homerun over the green monster? Can you take a turn going 175PMH? Hell NO! But hey – you can throw a 20 yard pass right? You can hit a wiffle ball or smack a single right? You can punch your car to 75 and feel good doing it right? That’s the point - you can say things because you know how to do it! The problem is your fear of saying “Man this tastes like the nougat in a Three Musketeers’ Bar” or “I know this smell – it smells like the wood in a sauna” or even “This tastes like Jolly Rancher green apple candy.” If you know what those things smell and taste like than – Whoop There It Is – Whoop There It Is! Tasting sake is awesome, because at the very least you will learn differences and when you have concluded that each brew tastes differently then you will be in a better position to say why! Easy Shmeasy!

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