Our mind works in certain ways. To learn, remember and understand things, we need to classify them. Then everything looks clear and in order. And it does make our life easier. For example, if you like a particular style of music, you just mention it and the people around you understand exactly what you mean.
However, in reality, the world is much less organised and clear cut than we would probably like. Our life is basically full of nuances, half-tones and ambiguities. I know that many artists, musicians and other creative people hate to be pigeon-holed in a specific style or artistic movement. Still, at least on the day-to-day level, classification helps a lot.
Let’s take sake. There are several ways to classify sake. The polishing ratio is the most obvious one. You’ve got futsushu (table sake) and special categories as junmai, honjozo, tokubetsu, ginjo and daiginjo. Another way is to use a type of sake like nigori, genshu, nama etc.
You can divide sake by brewing methods which include sokujo, yamahai and kimoto. Junmai – non-junmai, brewing rice, soft/hard water, there are many other possibilities. However, the classification based on the technical aspects of the brewing method or ingredients might not necessarily give a good idea of how a particular sake tastes like.
Take, for example, the sake classification, based on the polishing ratio. You can try for example a junmai ginjo sake and say “I like the balanced acidity, fruity aroma and mild taste. iI will buy it again”. You come to the shop and ask for junmai ginjo thinking, “I’ll try a different brand”.
However, there are so many brewing styles that you cannot always expect the same tasting profile from junmai ginjo. It might vary from dry and crisp to fruity and mellow depending on the brewery, toji or just brand. Same with any other classification based on the formal attributes.
SSI sake taste profiles
I think that various organisations tried to come up with some common classification to make like of sake lovers easier. One of them, SSI, the Sake Service Institute, have developed their own sake taste profiles, which they use in the educational materials and are promoting to sake producers and restaurants.
I don’t think that it has been widely accepted yet but someone mentioned seeing these profiles in some restaurants in Japan. So what these profiles based on? The nice people from the SSI decided to classify all the sake into four categories using two criteria: aroma and flavour: kun-shu, sou-shu, jun-shu and juku-shu.
Kun-shu is aromatic sake, fragrant and light. If you buy a Junmai daiginjo and daiginjo sake, it is most certainly kun-shu. Some ginjo and junmai ginjo also fall into this category. Kun-shu is characterised by a fruity aroma, light and fresh flavour, and can be sweet or dry.
If you see sake pressed using either shizukuzake or tobingakoi method, again it’s a good possibility that those sake are kun-shu.
Kun-shu sake usually described as floral, fruity, mellow, fresh, elegant, delicate, smooth etc.
Good examples of kun-shu sake are
- Dassai 23
- Tatenokawa 50 Junmai Daiginjo
- Shirakabegura Daiginjo Muroka Genshu
- Atago no Sakura Junmai Daiginjo
Kun-shu is great to drink on its own: it’s smooth, elegant, with balanced acidity and mellow taste. It’s beautifully paired with cheese, salads and other light dishes, steamed chicken or fish. Kun-shu is great to serve in a wine glass to capture its fragrant aroma.
Sou-shu is a refreshing sake, light and smooth. Sou-shu can be any sake from junmai daiginjo to futsushu. Probably junmai sou-shu is less common but still, you can come across a bottle of light and refreshing junmai once in a while.
Sou-shu is the lightest and simplest of the four types of sake. It’s not very fragrant with a very delicate aroma, light flavour and usually silky or crisp texture. You should definitely serve it chilled in a flute or wine glass.
You would describe sou-shu sake as light, fresh, clear, delicate and vibrant. Sparkling sake is quite often is sou-shu.
Good examples of sou-shu are
- Yauemon Shuawa “Pearl” Junmai Daiginjo
- Tosatsuru Washi no Junmai
- Azure Ginjo
- Kubota Koju Tokubetsu Junmai
Sou-shu sake works great as an aperitif or paired with light dishes like salads or with seafood, especially sashimi as it neutralises the oiliness of raw fish.
Jun-shu, ‘pure sake’ – is a rich full-body sake with a subtle fragrance. It is rich in umami and has a great character. Jun-shu the sake where you can still smell steamed rice in the aroma. Jun-shu is usually junmai or honjozo sake, though sometimes might come across junmai ginjo jun-shu.
Kimoto and yamahai brewing methods very often produce jun-shu, especially for junmai and honjozo sake. Jun-shu is often described as a robust and savoury but still mellow sake with a complex and rich aroma and deep flavour.
Examples of jun-shu include
- Shirakabegura Kimoto Junmai
- Tamagawa Yamahai Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu
- Yauemon Junmai
- Gozenshu Junmai Bodaimoto “Rocky Mountains”
Jun-shu is a great sake for food paring. It goes exceptionally well with full-flavoured hearty meals like fried chicken, grilled or BBQ’ed beef, pork and oily fish. You would usually serve it in traditional sake glasses like choko or guinomi. Jun-shu is very good at room temperature or hot. You can try to heat up from 40° to even 70°.
Aged sake, like koshu is usually juku-shu. It’s a completely different type of sake which emerged quite recently. Its main characteristics are a full-body, rich aroma and deep flavour.
It usually has a flavour of dry fruit and spices, creamy texture with some sweetness and umami. However, it’s not particularly sweet.
Aged sake stands out by its amber colour developed as a result of the ageing process.
Aged sake can be made of any type of sake, but it’s often junmai or honjozo.
Good examples of the juku-shu sake include
- Nishinoseki 1988 Super dry
- Michisakari Aperitif Ginjo Koshu
- Golden Amber Junmai Koshu
- Shirayuki Edo Genroku Junmai
- Tamagawa Time Machine
Juku-shu is great at room temperature or on the rocks in a brandy glass. It can be served as an aperitif or digestive or with rich food like beef bourguignon or coq au vin or with desserts.
Of course, there is no clear cut between SSI sake taste profiles. For example, Kubota Senju might fall between sou-shu and Jun-shu. Same for some ginjo sake, which could appear sou-shi for some people but kun-shu for the others.
I wish the taste profiles were used more widely. It would be great to come to a restaurant or a sake shop and see some indication of how a particular sake tastes like. Probably we’ll see it in the future or the Japanese Sake and Shochu Association might come up with a different system. Who knows.
So it’s now a good time to put the information about the SSI taste profiles into practice. Go and buy a sake you have never tasted and try to figure out what SSI type it is.