Click flavor slice to find sake with that profile
Typified by low-alcohol sake, which is often higher in acidity to help strike a balance.
Sake that strikes the palate with a fresh, smooth splash. Typified by some daiginjo, especially nama daiginjo sake.
Sake with a clean, crisp and dry flavor. Typified by some ginjo and honjozo sake.
Sake with a soft profile, neither too dry nor too sweet, and few off-flavors. Typified by a range of sake, including some ginjo, junmai ginjo, and honjozo.
Sake with a nicely spreading and slightly rich, full flavor. Typified by some junmai, ginjo and junmai ginjo.
Sake with a rich, sweet flavor to it. Typified by some junmaishu, and a special sake called “yondan shikomi.”
Sake with a sturdy, earthy character to it, and a nice, high acidity. Typified by some junmai sake.
Sake that has been aged; solid and rich in the way that only aged sake can be.
Sake in which certain factors overwhelmingly determine the flavor. Typified by taru -zake, nigori-zake, and some special brewing methods.
About Haruo Matsuzaki
Haruo Matsuzaki is one of the foremost sake critics in Japan today. His palate, ability to discern, and memory rival that of any wine sommelier in the world. Matsuzaki has created a system of classifying sake that, while not being the simplest, is thorough and useful.
Matsuzaki’s system features eleven groups into which sake can be placed (although one of those groups is “other,” used for sake that simply won’t cooperate and fit into one of the other groups). These are arranged in a pattern, or circuit, that flows in an order indicating which sake work best as aperitifs, with food, and as after-dinner sake. It also indicates a general temperature range, i.e. chilled or warmed, at which the sake of the respective groups might be best enjoyed.
“Honing it down to eleven was difficult; originally I had as many as 21 classifications ,” comments Matsuzaki. Admittedly, perhaps fewer groups is easier to remember, but the limitations imposed by a system of fewer groups is both misleading about sake in general, and too limiting in terms of information.
Caveats and Disclaimers
As premium sake is fairly new to most of the English-speaking world, some of the first questions we ask are: “What are the different kinds of sake? How many are there? What kind of flavors can we expect from these different types?”
There are both simple and not so simple answers to these questions. Yes, there are indeed several types, or grades, of sake that will each tend toward particular flavor profiles. Click here for an overview of these types. However, these types are far from being mutually exclusive, and the lines that define them are fuzzy at best. For example, some junmai sake (at least 30% of rice polished away) is lighter and more fragrant than some daiginjo (at least 50% of rice polished away), although one would expect the reverse based on the generalized grading system used to
classify sake. As there is overlap, the usefulness of any grading system for determining what a sake is really like is inherently limited.
No System is Perfect
Alas, there is no perfect system to classify sake. Yet, it is still important to attempt to make it easier for consumers to know what they are getting into flavor-wise.
Unlike wine, where the grape varietal determines much about the final product, we cannot cull too much information about a sake based on rice alone (although sake rice is different from table rice, and there are dozens of sake rice varieties that clearly impact flavor). How the rice is handled, and what special techniques the brewer employs, go a long way in determining the final flavor and style. So does the water used in brewing, and its special characteristics. For more on these topics, please visit the Sake Ingredients page.
In the end, the best way to classify sake may be to simply categorize it by how it tastes and smells and feels. In other words, we could place each sake we assess into one of several groups, arbitrarily labeled and classified. Examples might be dry, sweet, rich, light, fruity, et cetera, ad infinitum. This could be considered a backwards approach, since originally we were looking for a way to determine how a sake tastes based on other information and parameters (like water, yeast, rice type , degree of milling, brewing techniques, etc.). But, as we continually discover, no parameter in sake or sake brewing is an absolute or a guarantee that a particular flavor profile will result.
There are problems with an approach based on taste. For one, flavor and fragrance are wonderfully and impossibly subjective. One person may describe a sake as having a certain flavor and quality, and place it into a particular category, where someone else may have a totally different take on it. So much affects how a sake tastes that it is difficult to pin one down with any sort of consistency. Temperature, sake or food consumed just before, body condition; all of these can change how a sake presents itself.
Two, as there is sake along every point of the continuous spectrum of the flavor axis, it is impossible to make enough classifications so that every sake fits neatly into one or the other. In fact, most sake will inevitably fall into one category or another, and plopping a sake into one group is strictly an arbitrary exercise. But, in an effort to make it easier for consumers to know what they are drinking flavor-wise, perhaps a system based on taste characteristics is the best and simplest.
Japanese Attempts to Classify Sake by Taste
Originally, all sake was placed into one of two great camps, sweet and dry. Sake was labeled amakuchi (sweet) or karakuchi (dry). Until about 30 years ago, most sake was simple enough to be served satisfactorily by this system. Later, it became necessary to be a bit more detailed, and include a few more terms. A system of five flavors (Go-mi) came into use, and is still used to some degree today. Those five flavors are amami (sweetness), karami (dryness), sanmi (acid flavor), nigami (bitterness), and shibumi (astringency, tightness).
There also have been attempts to modify these five, excluding one or the other and adding another. One example of a flavor that has been added is umami, which is dreadfully hard to translate into English smoothly. It indicates a richness or fullness that just somehow satisfies. (As a side note, researchers in the US have isolated taste buds that respond in such a way as to indicate that umami may be a bona fide flavor.)
Elsewhere, and more recently, a sake marketing organization in Japan (also active in the US) has created a system that puts all sake into one of four groups. These groups are given obscure names in Japanese, and translated as fresh, light, rich and aged in English. Although all attempts to render the complexities of sake into a quickly conveyable form must be applauded, the use of only four seems too limited.