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Sake Making
[Part 2]
 Sweet Sake and Dry Sake

There are many ways to assess the flavor profile of a Sake. Naturally, like any premium beverage, Sake has a whole range of flavors and fragrances that can be appreciated. And just as naturally, everyone will taste and smell something a little bit different.

But one of the easiest ways to classify Sake in the broadest sense is in terms of sweetness and dryness.

Whether a Sake will be perceived as sweet or dry is a function of several things, including the balance between the sugar in a Sake and the acids in that Sake. This is shown in the diagram below.

Chart:Sweet and Dry

In b. above, we have what would be considered a "heavy, dry" Sake. In this type of Sake, both the sugar content and the acid content are high. The acids tend to knock out the sweetness, creating a dry Sake, but the content of acid and sugar gives the Sake a relatively heavier flavor overall.

In a. above, we see what might be considered the opposite to this, which is Sake in which the sugar content is low, but the acid content is also low. There is not enough acid to knock out the sweetness, so the Sake tastes sweet, but the overall sugar content too is low, so there is not much flavor, and the Sake tastes rather thin.

Truly enjoyable Sake with a clean flavor results from a balance and harmony between the sugar and naturally-occurring acids.

By the way, where do the sugar and acid come from?
Sugar is created by the mold known as koji, which breaks rice starch down into sugar. Part of the sugar will be fermented, the rest will not. Fermentation yields natural acids of various kinds.

When Sake is not labeled Junmai, and this includes almost all cheap Sake on the market, it has had some brewer's alcohol added to it. When this is done, the Sake lacks the natural acids that would have been there as the result of natural fermentation. In other words, by adding alcohol instead of allowing all of it to be the result of fermentation, the final product lacks the balance of a totally naturally fermented Sake. This causes such Sake to have a bit of an unnatural sweetness.

This is why Sake like Junmai-Sake, Junmai-Ginjo, and Junmai-Daiginjo are often drier, and at the same time maintain a harmony as a result of the balance between the natural sweetness and the acids.

Most people have a natural tendency to classify a Sake as either being sweet or dry. But Sake is a bit more complicated in reality, and cannot be defined by such vague and simple classifications. If one were to look at just the sugar content of a given Sake, it might seem logical to say that the more sugar there is, the sweeter a Sake will be, and the less sugar there is, the drier it will be.

But it is not quite that simple. There are other things --like alcohol content and like the acids mentioned above-- that must also be taken into consideration. It is quite interesting actually. For example, acid will suppress the ability of the taste buds on the tongue to sense sweetness. So, if there is a lot of acid in a Sake, even if the sugar content is high, it will not taste all that sweet since the acid has made the tongue less sensitive to that sugar.

Winemakers for a long time have been very careful about the amount of sugar and the amount of acid in their wine, and sweetness in wine without proper acidity has always been frowned upon. But this somehow got overlooked, so that much sweet Sake today does not have proper acidity, and this, alas, has degraded the quality and taste of Sake, producing a drink too sweet for more than one glass.

Naturally occurring acids have been mentioned several times in this discussion, but little has been said about their actual impact on flavor. There are several of these acids that are found in Sake, and here are a few of the main types, and how they affect flavor.

Lactic Acid: tasted as a gentle acidity with a slight astringent touch
Succinic Acid: tasted as an acidity with a slight heaviness and earthiness to it
Malic Acid: tasted as a light acidity with a faint bitter tone
Citric Acid: tasted as a fairly strong astringency
To be continued.