The flavour profile of sake varies from dry to slightly sweet, but the goal is always balance. The rice in premium sakes (tokutei meishoushu) is highly polished, giving a more refined, delicate and fruitier palate.
There are approximately sixty-five varieties of rice designated as sake rice. Like wine grapes, different types of rice grow best in particular regions and some are more prized than others. Yamada Nishiki, Gohyaku Mangoku and Omachi are all highly renowned varieties.
The starch in sake rice is concentrated in the centre of the grain. The polishing process removes lipids and minerals on the outside resulting in a cleaner, more fragrant brew. Premium sakes are divided into junmai sake and non-junmai sake. Junmai is made purely from rice, whereas non-junmai typically has added brewer’s alcohol.
Non-premium sake, futsushu, accounts for 75% of all the sake produced in Japan. It is the equivalent of table wine and is reasonably priced and versatile. Futsushu is often overlooked in the West in favour of premium sakes, but good futsushu can be wonderful. Other types of sake include nigori, a cloudy sake which is more rustic and less smooth on the palate, as well as sparkling, aged and flavoured varieties.
Most sake is clear, but some may have a pale golden or amber hue. If sake has been left in direct sunlight or allowed to age, it will degrade and turn a darker, flat brown colour. Sake that has degraded to this level is best avoided.