"Ask Beau" June 2005
This months question came by cell phone rather than email and was sent by a local San Francisco very well known sommelier who asked, "Should you ever decant sake?" My first inclination is to say no, and I base this reply upon my many discussions with brewery owners who all generally say that sake is meant to be consumed at the first-opened time period. This particular sommelier decanted a genshu (undiluted) sake with a higher than normal acidity level, and he said it was "drinking better than ever" two days after opening. I suspect that the sake "rounded out," which they do when oxidation sets in.
There are some sakes that drink better the next day! There I have said it. And by that I mean that it takes a wash of oxygen to bring a balance that may be lacking to the sake as it was bottled. Does this mean the sake was bad or unbalanced? No it means that the edges needed a little rounding and the feeling needed a little softness. Sake that is oxidized or has been opened for several days tends to get softer – not flat – and some sweetness presents itself. Some say it gets smoother. But honestly a brewer would have brewed it that way initially if that is the feeling that he wanted you to have.
There are two particular sakes in my store that I tell customers up front that if they don't like the sake when opened put the cap on and try it the next day. And to a "T" they all have come back and agreed. The sake went from aggressive and big to soft and round, or so they say.
At our True Sake Koshu Tasting on the last full moon, I surprised the tasters with several sake experiments, one of which was serving two bottles of three-year-old sake from the same batch. I opened one of the sakes the day before and let air hit the fluid for roughly 5 hours. Most of the tasters preferred the sake that had been opened. Breathing does different things to different sakes. It is up to you to see which you prefer. By all means purchase two bottles of the same sake and do your own "decanting" test. As stated above I would use genshus or fuller-bodied sakes as your test subjects.
But alas what about my cool decanter with the ice pocket in it? Use it proudly, but keep the opened bottle capped in the fridge when not in use so that the sake does not change as much as it would sitting out "decanting" in the open air. Sake is pasteurized so it does have some length to it, unlike wine that uses sulfites and one must speak in hours when asking how long an opened bottle will last.
Now be forewarned, sakes that have felt air or have breathed at times lose their flavor in exchange for getting softer. The oxidation process thus becomes more of a function of feeling than flavor, and it is a shame to say goodbye prematurely to a great tasting sake. So go forth and play with sake, see how rice and water that hasn't had a whiff of air for months does when you proudly open the bottle. There is no right or wrong when it comes to what you like.
Please send your sake specific questions to askbeau2 @ truesake.com. (This address is not for general questions and I only review the questions once per month. All correspondence should use info @ truesake.com.)