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Sake Course: International Kikisake-shi Day 1

Writing about sake is a tough job. It’s much more time consuming than drinking it. Though I love to do both. In my blog, I would like to use my personal experience in order to introduce new sake to both sake novices, who just start enjoying the drink and to the seasoned sake drinkers who are looking for something new. However, I didn’t have the special sake vocabulary and a tasting methodology. Without them, it is very difficult to convey how the particular sake tastes, how it feels and why I like it. That’s why I decided to enrol on a sake course to make my task a bit easier and my writing more informative and interesting for my readers.

Sake Courses in London

After some research, I found a few sake courses in London. First of all, there are two courses run by WSET (The Wine & Spirit Education Trust), a very reputable organisation which provides excellent education in the wine and spirits field. A few years ago they introduced two sake courses: a short one-day Level 1 course and a longer 3-day Level 3 course. While the short course is very good for people who’s just got into sake and would like to learn a bit more to enjoy it, I felt that it’s not enough for me. The 3-day Level 3 sake course is more comprehensive with a strong focus on the technical side of sake. So I short-listed it.

Secondly, there is a sake course run by the Sake Sommelier Association. It’s a 2-day Certified Sake Sommelier course which focuses on the serving aspect of sake. It’s a fantastic course for those who would like to go into the hospitality industry to become a sake sommelier or consultant, who works with restaurants, bars etc. After some consideration, I decided that for me the focus of the course was slightly off track.

The third option was the Master of Sake (International Kikisake-shi) sake course developed and certified by the Sake Service Institute (SSI) from Japan. It is taught by Satomi Dossier and Oliver Hilton-Johnson. Satomi runs Enshu, a company involved in sake consulting, marketing and education. Oliver is Director of Tengu Sake, one of the key specialist sake importers in the UK.

All three courses cover the same areas: sake classification, sake history, sake brewing, sake serving, sake marketing and sake tasting. However, as I said, their focuses are slightly different. After some consideration, I settled on the Kikisake-shi course by SSI. The main reason for me was that that course focuses on promoting sake across the world both as an enthusiast and as a business. It fitted perfectly with my objective to introduce sake to a wider audience and promote it across the world. (Well let’s be a bit more modest, across the UK first).

Kikisake-shi Sake course Textbook

I decided to go on the course at the last moment and was lucky that Satomi managed to fit me it at a short notice. To be honest, it was my first self-funded training course in years. So I was a bit nervous coming to it but very excited at the same time. The class size was around 20 people. Most of the students were coming from either the hospitality industry like sommeliers, waiters and bartenders or from the wine and spirit trade and distribution. Many of them did wine and sake courses previously so had some knowledge of the subject.

There were even two Japanese guys who wanted to improve their knowledge of sake here in London. One of them works for a Japanese food distributor here in the UK. He told me that he even wasn’t interested in sake back in Japan. It shows how the drinking habits in the country have changed in the last 20 years. On the other hand, his interest might be a sign of the sake revival many people are talking about at the moment.

Day one: tasting, tasting and some history

The course started with usual introductions and the course overview. When Oliver was talking about the course’s focus on sake presentation and the ability to talk professionally about it really appealed to me. “Yeah, it’s exactly what I want to get from it!” I thought. The first day was pretty much focused on this task: to give us the structure and the language to describe sake we try. The SSI has its own format of tasting notes. It covers the appearance of the drink and the characteristics of its aroma and taste. At the end of the tasting notes you can summarise your impression of the sake.

Preparation for sake tasting

After a brief presentation of the sake classification (honjozo, junmai ginjo etc), we moved straight to tasting. During the first day, we tried around 20 sake discussing each point on the tasting sheet and also talking about what kind of sakeware we would use to serve it, what kind of food we would pair it with and whom we would recommend it for. It was a very exciting exercise and it involved a lot of discussions, opinions and friendly arguments. I really enjoyed that part. Also, most of the sake we tried were very good and it was very interesting to try different styles of sake and compare them. It trains your nose and palate very well and I started picking up various aromas and flavours I was never able to identify before.

After the lunch break, Satomi gave us a very entertaining introduction to the history of sake. I have written about the sake history in my post before but I will update it later with new facts from Satomi’s presentation. One interesting point was that many modern technics of sake brewing started during the Edo period. Having done with the history, we moved to another tasting session. I felt much more confident that time and enjoyed the exercise even more. After that, we were given an opportunity to taste and write tasting notes on our own. It was great fun to discuss it afterwards. It’s amazing how different opinions about the same sake could be.

Sake history talk at the Kikisake-shi Sake course

During the first day, we tried many wonderful sake. Here my favourite picks for the day.

Picks of the Day

Tosatsuru Junmai Daiginjo

I have already written about Tosatsuru Brewery and their sake here. This particular sake was 40% polished ratio, but not very complex and fruity. It was medium dry with tropical fruit and herbs aroma and some hints of candy floss. In terms of flavour, it was medium dry and rather savoury with fruity notes.

Ninki-Ichi Modern Classic Junmi Daiginjo

Ninki Shuzo is a very interesting brewery from Fukushima. I’ve mentioned them before in my post about the Fukushima Pride event back in March. I loved their sake then and this time it also didn’t let me down.

It was a gorgeous and aromatic sake, typical junmai daiginjo with the aroma dominated by honey, raisins, orange peel and some dairy notes. The taste was sweet and fruity with a spicy finish. The sake must be perfect with spicy food or Shiba Shioyaki (grilled mackerel).

Golden Amber Junmai Koshu

This was a lavish koshu (aged) sake. Generally, I’m not a fan of aged sake, but this one really appealed to me. It had an intense aroma dominated by Christmasy flavours such as almonds, orange peel, apricot and raisins with some earthy notes and even a touch of whiskey.

Surprisingly, it was not overly sweet as you would expect from a koshu sake. It had a very long finish as the taste of chocolate, almonds and other Christmas goodies remaining on your tongue for a long time.

bottle of sake left after tasting

Overall, I was enjoying the first day of the International Kikisake-shi course. It was very to the point and practical with a lot of interesting first-hand information from Oliver and Satomi. And that was very important to me. I came home tired but excited and was looking forward to the next day.



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Clara

    Thank you so much for this blog post as I was also looking into enrolling for the course provided by SSI International. However, I failed to find on their website whether there is a in-person class running in my country and city (Canada/Toronto). The correspondence course option was offered on their website as 1 of the 2 routes to take and it mentioned it would be conducted via email and I have to prepare my own sake for tasting exam.
    Wondering how you found the class off-line and maybe it is only available in London. Nonetheless, I was hoping to double-check.
    Thank you so much.


    1. Alex

      Hi Clara. Thanks a lot for commenting. I found the off-line very helpful. The theoretical part could be learnt online of course but the practical part (tasting) could be tricky and it was great to discuss the tasting aspect of each sake in class. Also, we went through a significant number of different sake (probably over 40) and discussed their aroma and taste in quite a detail. It was very helpful for developing tasting skills. I can’t see any Kikisake-shi courses available in Canada though. You can try WSET Sake Level 1 or 3 courses if it’s available in Toronto.

    1. Alex

      Yes, sure. Please do!

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