Sake 101
Ep.1  “Why Does Sake Not Taste Good To Me?”

Aya and Tomoko (Tomo), total beginners when it comes to sake,
are here to learn from Saki (sake sommelier & journalist) how to enjoy sake.
If you feel like you’re a newbie too and don’t know where to start, you’ve found the right page!
Join us as we discuss how sake can indeed taste bad sometimes and what you can do to find sake you truly enjoy.

Edited by TOMOKO
Translated by Olivia Myrick

Hi, my name is Saki and I will be your mentor in your journey of uncovering the wonderful world of sake! So, anyone got any questions we can begin with?

Well, I got one. But uhh, it’s more of a complaint than a question…


Yeah? Try me!

I hate to say this, but I just don’t like the taste of sake.

You know what, that actually is a great place to start! So tell me, what about the sake’s flavor do you not like?

It’s that burning sensation you get in the throat.

Now you said you had Mio from Takara Shuzo the other day right? How was that one?

Mio was fine, but it did taste different from what I usually expect out of sake.

I see. Can you give me an example of the kind of sake you didn’t like?

I can’t recall any names but I had a hard time enjoying sake when the rest of my family was at our New Years get together. I really wanted to like it, but it just didn’t work for me.

I have a hard time with sake too sometimes.
I am potato-shochu fan but sometimes I switch it out with sake and it just doesn’t work with the food I’m used to.

Guys, I got a perfect solution for both of you! Just give me the sake you don’t like!

Hey you just told me you’re gonna help me understand sake. Why are you taking away my drink!

Yeah sure, but I mean why bother drinking it if you don’t like it?

I do wanna enjoy sake! I just need some help.

Alright alright. Joking aside, there’s lots of different kinds of sake out there, and I’m sure you’ll find ones you’ll love. You’ll have to start keeping track of the kinds of sake that work for you and that don’t work for you.

So what makes sake taste bad?

Well, for the sake of keeping things simple, let’s say it could be either because of the drinker or the sake itself.

Wait, you’re saying it could be my fault sake doesn’t taste good!?

Sort of. Aya, what do you usually have when it comes to drinking?

I like whiskey, but I usually mix it with coke because it’s pretty harsh on its own.

So you like drinks that go down easily. Hmm, maybe you’re gulping down your sake too. That can cause that burning sensation you were talking about earlier. Try taking only a sip and letting it settle on your tongue first next time. That should make it easier on your throat and you’ll notice more flavors and aroma coming through.

That’s cool! I didn’t know sake could taste so different just by changing how you drink it.
So what’s it like when the drink itself is the problem instead of the drinker.

Usually that comes down to mishandling of the sake.
Tomoko, where have you had some pretty bad sake?

Well I was still in college when I first had sake, so I believe I had hot sake at a cheap izakaya. I was used to drinking my potato-shochu on rock or with water so I remember being shocked by having a hot drink like that. It didn’t really work with the food they had at the izakaya either.

I see. First of all, those kind of places tend to have mass-produced cheap sake and don’t know much about how sake should be stored.

So, the moral of the story is “don’t drink cheap sake because they taste bad”?

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great sake that are affordable. That being said, a lot of cheap sake have been diluted with distilled alcohol and that can give you a strong ethanol smell/taste. And unfortunately, even if you begin with a good tasting sake, it can end up tasting really bad if the restaurant doesn’t know how to take care of it.
Also, hot sake should never taste “hot”. There’s a range for what the temperature could be, but for example 35℃ / 95F is said to be the best if you’re looking for maximum sweetness.

The sake I had was so hot I couldn’t hold the cup when it first came out.

Raising the temperature too high can make the sake lose flavor and give it more of that ethanol taste.
It’s sad so many people have those burning hot sake on the first time and give up on trying different kinds because they think that is just how sake tastes.

That sounds like me.

I was lucky because I got to try really good sake first, so even when I did come across bad sake I knew it wasn’t a good representation of how sake really tastes.

Guess I had a rough start too. Do you still think we’ll eventually come to appreciate sake?

Of course! Do you guys know how many sake breweries exist in Japan?

Hmm, no idea.

I have no idea either. Maybe 1000?

The number is declining, but there’s still 1500 or so.

Wow! 1500, huh?

Yes. Each brewery then has so many varieties to offer. Just like I said, I bet you can find some you’ll enjoy.
For example, Aya, you might like sake from Niigata; they tend to be lighter and almost as easy to drink as water.
Tomoko, you’re into potato-shochu so you might like sake from Kansai area which tend to have strong umami flavor.

Now we’re talking about region? How does location change the flavor of sake?

Well we see less difference nowadays with advancement of technology, but historically speaking, areas with more snow tend to have sake with a lighter body because they would have to eat lots of salty pickled foods during winter, which is the main production season for sake. On the other hand, sake from warmer areas where they can still fish and harvest vegetables during winter tend to be more flavorful, which won’t be overpowered by any of the food they have at dinnertime.

Ok I get that there’s lots of different kinds of sake, but how can I tell what it’s gonna taste like when I order one? All the sake terminology is way too complicating.

Asking the server can help if they know their sake. It’s a good idea to let them know the kind of sake you enjoy if you already know, or you can just tell them the food you ordered and maybe they can suggest a sake that will go well with that.
Another advantage to drinking at an izakaya/restaurant is that you get to try so many without committing to a full bottle! That way you can narrow down the kinds of sake you like. Maybe you’ll find that you like ginjo-style, or sake from Tohoku region for example. Keep taking notes and you’ll get closer and closer to meeting that sake that you’ll absolutely love!

Great! I can’t wait to find my favorite sake!

You’re already on your way! Food-pairing is another important element of the whole sake experience as Tomoko mentioned earlier, and I think we can talk about that next time around.

In summary

–  Don’t chug your sake! Instead, try sipping little by little, letting each sip settle on your tongue so you can taste the full complexity.

–  Drinking at cheap izakaya/restaurant can be risky! Mishandling and/or serving at the wrong temperature can make the sake taste off putting.

–  Try lots of sake and take notes to figure out the kinds of sake you like!