August 2011

Ask Beau - "I never know how to describe sake - any hints?"

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, Ask Beau, August, Newsletter
Dayna D from Chicago asked a question that we get a lot. She said, "I like sake and I drink it from time to time. When I tell my friends about sake I never know how to describe it. Do you know have any hints or suggestions for the best way to speak sake?"

Man this is a no brainer! When I was quite a bit younger I had a real problem with math. It was either right or wrong and that was way too black and white for me. It almost didn't seem fair, as I thought that my creative ways to get a problem "wrong" should be rewarded or at the very least appreciated. No such luck! The red ink said "no!" and "not even close." The great thing about describing sake is that there is no red ink! Nobody can "grade" your descriptions, because your experience with a sake is completely unique. I say quite often "You are the champion of your palate," which basically means that your experience cannot be wrong and cannot get circled in red.

That said, there are some hints to help you to open up to your experience of tasting a sake. First and foremost use your wine vernacular. Speak to sake as you would speak to a beer or a glass of Bordeaux. Sweet or dry? Easy shmeasy! That's easy stuff. Full-bodied or light? Ummm okay, getting closer. I personally like thinking about the feeling first then looking for flavors. Thick, thin, slippery, velvety, fat, chewy, smooth, round, sharp, crisp, and even watery all work. These are the footholds or the foundation for your description. "This sake has a good soft and silky feeling that glides across the palate." Then attack the dry vs. sweet vs. fruity angle. "This semi- dry sake drinks very soft and smooth." Now comes the flavor angle and this is more of the "subjective" aspect of you being the champion of your palate. Sake is essentially rice. So there are many variations of rice flavors from sweet to steamed to burnt, etc. But we also have the yeasty conversion of a glucose into alcohol so sake has many "sweet" elements, which I like to say are fruity tones instead of sweet. Sake is also water, so there are watery flavors as well - minerals being one.

It's hard to say that a sake tastes like one flavor. Sometimes a brew will have a very large cantaloupe or honeydew umbrella flavor. But it doesn't sound good if you say "This sake tastes like honeydew," and you leave it as that. Hmmmmm? If you add some of the feelings and effects of the sake then the honeydew is a component and not the whole deal. "This semi-dry sake drinks incredibly smooth and round. It feels good in the mouth and has a particularly quick and clean finish. There is no long tail or aftertaste, but what I like the most is that there is an undercurrent of honeydew amongst several other fruit tones."

So, I guess the best hint or tip that I can give is that you shouldn't hold back in your descriptions. Say what you feel. Say what you taste. And say what appeals to you. And the result is your description of sake, sans the red "wrong" ink.

Please send your sake specific questions to askbeau2 @ (This address is not for general questions and I only review the questions once per month. All other correspondence should use info @

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