New Tales of Off-flavors: Global Perspective on Sake’s Off-flavors (Part4-2)



New Tales of Off-flavors: Global Perspective on Sake’s Off-flavors (Part4-2)

Saki Kimura  |  New Tales of Off-flavors

Once considered an unpleasant aroma, sake's off-flavors are now increasingly seen as a unique style or personality of the brewery..

SAKE Street's series New Tales of Off-flavors pursues this theme from a variety of angles: In Part 1, Yosuke Kawase, a sake expert assessor, explains the conventional definition of off-flavor. In Part 2, we asked Hyogo Prefecture's Kenbishi Sake Brewery and Fukuoka Prefecture's Yama no Kotobuki to discuss their approach to off-flavor, and in Part 3, we asked beer and wine professionals to tell us how they differ from off-flavor in sake.

In this fourth installment, the possibilities of future off-flavors are examined in a back-and-forth series of articles. In the prequel, an in-depth look at the state of off-flavors from the perspective of food pairings.

The theme of the sequel is "Global Perspective on Sake’s Off-flavor". Mei Ho of True Sake, a sake dedicated store in San Francisco, and Kerry Jo Rizzo (KJ), a WSET instructor and wine buyer, talked about the relationship between overseas expansion and off-flavor.

Difficult to determine off-flavor on the international market

──Mei is the long-time manager of True Sake, a sake specialty store in San Francisco that has been in business for almost 20 years.
KJ is a wine sommelier and WSET Sake instructor who previously worked at True Sake and is now the manager of a bar in San Francisco that serves both wine and sake. Have either of you experienced any off-flavors in sake while working?

Mei: To be honest, it is impossible to determine if all sakes retain their original flavor. Unless the aroma is clearly strange or the taste is different after several bottles of the same sake, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether the flavor was intended by the brewer or whether it is off-flavored.

KJ: This happens often with wine. Distributors want to sell their products at any cost, so sometimes reps control the taste of the bottles by opening them early before an appointment to get the best flavor. To avoid the possibility of buying a bottle that tastes different, at the tasting I ask, "When was this bottle opened?"

Mei: If the drinker has some sake knowledge, s/he could make an educated guess like, "This is made with Dewasansan, so they must want to make it have more Dewasansan characteristics." In the case of sake stores, we cannot open all the bottles, so we often have to make judgments based on the date of manufacture and other factors.

KJ: I once had an aged sake that tasted like onion soup, and I thought, "Is this okay?" But I tasted the same thing at other bars specializing in sake. So I thought, "Oh, that's the flavor the brewery intended," but when I drank the same sake in Japan, it tasted completely different.

Mei: But actually, I think it can be different depending on the lot and the year of brewing. And brewers are always trying to improve or change their recipes. I once asked about the taste of a certain brewery's sake that had changed, and they told me that they change the recipe depending on the quality of the rice. But I don't always have direct communication with the brewery, and it's not always communicated what has changed.

──Whether it is due to the export process or climate differences, it is possible that differences in flavor that are perceived as slight in Japan may be perceived as significant overseas.

KJ: Like with wine, essentially the brewer has to properly go to the export destination and investigate what their product tastes like.

──It is well known that Dassai provides detailed instructions on product handling to foreign restaurants and stores.

Mei: It is very good to tell their partner distributors how they want their products to be handled. But it is not enough to be perfect. Restaurants and retailers to whom distributors wholesale sake do not bother to prepare refrigerators for this purpose, much less store sake at 0°C or 5°C. It is very difficult to be thorough.

Delicious changes beyond intent

──How do you deal with off-flavors when you find them?

Mei: For the bottles we already have an inventory of, if we suspect there could be off-flavors, we will do a quality check by tasting it. Depending on the outcome, we may continue to sell older bottles at a discount. When we do this, we make sure to inform customers that the bottle(s) are older and the taste may be different when we receive newer batches. If the quality is not good, we may consume them only with family and friends. But in most cases, even among the older inventory, there are times where sake has undergone a nice change.

KJ: I have also found that some nama that are intended to be consumed right away improve in flavor when they have been aged for a few years. The aging process of namazake can change things in interesting ways, like wine.

──Even in Japan, some people refer to the aging of nama as "nama-juku" and love it.

KJ: Japanese people are accustomed to drinking fresh sake, but this is not always the case for people overseas, especially wine lovers.

Mei: Although the distribution of sake to the U.S. is now on a fresh rotation compared to the past when it was on a multi-year cycle, it is not as frequent as in Japan, so even if the sake is fresh, it takes a few months to get through one inventory. But we are sure that our customers enjoy it, and it can be a plus rather than a minus.

KJ: Or rather, from the standpoint of handling both, sake is less prone to flaws than wine. Perhaps because it is made from rice and is almost always pasteurized, there are fewer changes. Also, what are called "off-flavors" are often perceived as tasty. I have been involved with sake for eight years now, and I can only count on one hand the number of times I thought, "This is really bad."

──I heard a person in the American sake industry say once that "compared to Japan, there are fewer customers who are concerned about the smell of hineka".

Mei: Hmmm, that's simply because the majority aren’t as educated about sake as other beverages. Most Westerners like whiskey or hoppy beers like IPA, so they tend to have a wide tolerance for complex flavors.

KJ: Wine has a well established process where you order a bottle at a restaurant and they have you taste it to make sure it tastes right. Sometimes this service point is skipped when serving natural wines. Usually, the customer who orders it expects it to be eccentric, so there is no use in offering a taste and risking them saying "It doesn't taste good. Faults in natural wines are widely accepted as part of the wine's flavor profile.

If you order a bottle of sake at a restaurant, sometimes a taste to check the bottle isn’t offered. This is okay considering most sake do not contain faults and if they did, a customer may or may not know how to point them out. Although rare, microbial spoilage which can smell similar to rancid cheese and rotting vegetables can be experienced in pasteurized sake and if it’s present, customers will know immediately as they start drinking it. Overall, there is not much discussion regarding off-flavors in sake because they so rarely come up.

Is off-flavor determined by language?

KJ: Volatile acidity and brettanomyces are well-known off-flavors of wine, but in many cases, the average consumer doesn't care that much. As for brett, it is a common aroma in certain wine regions, as well as some beer styles. Therefore, it is up to professionals who understand off-flavors to determine whether beverages are in the appropriate condition.

For example, when I tasted a wine that contained butyric acid, I said it "tasted like vomit", but another sommelier described it as "grapefruit pith". Both descriptions were correct and if you ask me which one would make customers want to drink more, it would be the latter.

──You say that the same fragrance can become more attractive depending on the expression of the communicator.

KJ: Interpreting taste and aroma is a highly personal experience and can be difficult to express to others. When trying to explain abstract things like taste , there are many different methods, and it is almost like a writing skill. People who are familiar with wine and sake culture and those who are not, as well as people from different countries have different tasting standards and vocabulary. What I consider to be onions can be described as "like durian" by someone from another country.

Ultimately, the issue is what kind of taste the customers like and whether they would like to drink it according to our expression. There are many people who like unique tastes.

Mei: Customers occasionally ask if it’s safe to drink sake that they’ve forgotten they had over the years. Older sake doesn’t make you sick and I usually recommend tasting it before deciding to dump it out. If you think it tastes good, just drink it! As a maker, it may be frustrating to not be able to keep up with the conditions, but if the customer enjoys it as a result, I don't think that enjoyment should be denied.

Diversifying sake flavors

──The recent acceptance of off-flavors and the diversification of sake flavors are closely related.

KJ: Over the past couple of years, I've been encountering many complex aromas that I never would have thought possible in the eight years I've been involved with sake. One modern trend is sake produced with higher acidity levels to mimic the flavor profile of white wine.

Mei: I wonder, "If it's sake, why do they make it taste the same as wine?” It is not in a negative way though.

KJ: I think that some sake producers believe they need a product that transcends the sake category in order to get new consumers interested. Initially, I was intrigued with sake by tasting fruity and flavorful types.

Mei: It would be nice to have sake that is fruit infused, of course. It is good that some breweries make unique sake like that. But I don't want the sake industry as a whole to go in one direction.

KJ: Before I became a sake specialist, I bought my first bottle of Junmai Daiginjo from a Niigata sake brewery, which cost almost $100 a bottle. But at that time, my taste for sake had not yet been refined, and I thought, “Why does it cost so much for something that tastes so neutral?” But as I tried different bottles, I began to appreciate the delicate taste that only sake can have. It may indeed be difficult to get people to start drinking sake with more traditional styles.

Mei: I love the taste of traditional sake, so I don't want to see that style completely cut off if the industry as a whole moves in a certain direction. I think it is only when there is diversity that new flavors can be created.


Overseas exports of sake are growing year by year in terms of both volume and value. The more people involved, the greater the risk of off-flavor, but the opinions of specialists in the industry show the possibility that some changes in flavor can be good and we shouldn’t focus only on preventing different flavors..

However, one thing I would like to add as the author is that sellers should never be deceptive, and sell sake in bad condition. They should never hide information, such as the date of manufacture or misrepresent storage temperatures. To prevent bad sake experiences, it’s important to have honest communication and to share knowledge, so we limit bad sake experiences and increase the number of good sake experiences.

In overseas markets, where cultural and ideological assumptions differ greatly, Japanese common sense and rules do not apply, and there are many areas that cannot be fully controlled. How do we deal with this issue that is often overlooked? As overseas exports continue to increase, it is important for each and every player to think about this issue, rather than simply shifting the responsibility for it onto others.

We have presented the series based on four themes so far. At the beginning of the project, we expected the content to be more scientific, but as we talked to various people, we realized that the issues are also related to a wide variety of topics such as language, history, and philosophy.

What kind of sake will be loved 100 years from now? There may be sake that we cannot even imagine yet.

Series "New Tales of Off-flavors"
Part1: What is Sake’s Off-flavor?

Part2: Past and Present Stories of Two Sake Breweries

Part3: What is the Difference between Beer, Wine and Sake?

Part4-1: Sake Off-flavor Potential in Pairing (Part4-1)

Part4-2: Global Perspective on Sake’s Off-flavors (Part4-2)

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