When you look at the myriad of bottles that contain sake, it is hard to know which one to choose. Artfully decorated with vertical characters, these bottles can be intimidating. However, in the spirit of making sake more approachable, the Japanese devised a universal scale of measures to help weary or unfamiliar consumers make a more informed choice as to their sake experience. While it may help to memorize the milling requirements for the general categories of sake, you don’t have to be a Master of sake to start your exploration.
Many back labels of sake bottles use The Nihonshu-do, or Sake Meter Value (SMV) to communicate the style of the sake in the bottle. Using the density of the sake as compared to water, this scale measures the amount of unfermented sugars within the liquid. Using the combination of heavier sugar with the lightness of alcohol, a density can be assigned using a number. The density is measured with a hydrometer, a small tube set to float in a cylinder of liquid. On this an arbitrary scale has been assigned. Where 0 is considered neutral, if the heaviness of the sugar overpowers the lightness of the alcohol, the sake will have a negative reading, indicating the liquid contains more unfermented sugars and will taste sweet. Should the sugars be counterbalanced by the lightness of the alcohol, the reading will be in the positive, revealing a drier sake.
Most sakes live between -3 and +10 on the SMV. Technically, there is no limit to how sweet or dry a sake can be, but most keep within these parameters in order to produce an enjoyable sake experience.
Nihonshu-Do Sake Meter Value (SMV)
However, with tastes changing with every generation, the thirst for drier sake has become more prevalent. While 0 is the traditional indication for neutral, studies suggest that the neutral tolerance has been pushed slightly positive on this scale to about a +3. Of course, everyone’s perception of sweet and dry are different and the gradation of the scale is purely subjective.
Another number on the sake label to consider is the acidity. There is acid in every type of alcohol and in the grand scheme of alcoholic options, sake has about one –fifth the acidity of wine. As we learned from Chemistry class, all those years ago, the higher the number- the less acid in the solution. The acidity level of sake tends to fall between 1.0 and 2.0, with the average sake landing somewhere in the 1.3 range. The higher the acidity on the scale, the richer, or more full-bodied the mouthfeel of the liquid. Just like wine, the acidity level is important to determine favorable pairings. As a rule of thumb, the more acid in a beverage, the more food friendly it becomes. Usually you want a good acid wine to go with a fattier protein (think Champagne and Fried Chicken), however you do not want it so acidic to sour the flavors. It is a delicate balance.
The final consideration on a sake choice is the temperature. While some Americans first example of sake may have been in the form of a ‘sake bomb’, the dropping of a warmed sake into a Japanese lager and consumed at an irresponsible pace, the majority of sakes are served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Warm sake is not inferior, necessarily. There are some sakes engineered specifically to be enjoyed heated, but all of them. Thankfully, there are recommendations on the back labels of sake that will guide your decision as to the best way to enjoy a specific expression. It’s really a personal preference, so try different temperatures of the varying sakes to see which your preferred method of enjoyment is.
And lastly, sake has a bit of a shelf life after opening. Unlike wine, it will not oxidize overnight (there are exceptions). Should you not finish your sake in one sitting, feel free to put it in the fridge or in a cool dark spot (don’t forget it!) until you are inspired to have another sip! When pressing my sake gurus about this, they say the longest you should probably have a sake open is about a month, but again, if you try it and it tastes pleasant, then drink away. There will be no ill effects in drinking sakes that has been open for a while.
If you’ve ever been interested in trying sake, I hope you take a chance. It is a glorious libation that has been enjoyed and honed as an art form over 2000 years. Using the Sake Meter Value for a sweetness level and the acidity number for a guide on body will greatly increase your chance of choosing a sake that will excite your taste buds. While it is comforting to know that while science can help inform your sake decision, know that it will take a few adventures in ‘field study’ (tasting) to determine the ideal combinations of factors for your preferred style of sake. But then, again, that’s the fun!