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How to survive a sake tasting

You might have already had it. Coming from the sake tasting, being a bit tipsy and on the next day trying to remember what sake you were drinking, especially halfway through the event. I have definitely gone through this experience before and had to come up with a technique to try a lot of sake, to enjoy the event but not to have any unpleasant aftereffects. Bear with me and I will share some tips.

My first proper introduction into the sake world actually happened through a sake tasting event, a good friend of mine invited me to. Before that, I was interested but not enough. Yes, I tried sake a few times and started to appreciate it. However, my impression of sake was based on a very few sake I had tried before. It was just limited. I realised it when I came to the Embassy of Japan in London for the IWC Award Winning Sake Tasting in 2017. You can read about this year’s event here.

There were about 40 sake available to try and they all were the highest quality award winning sake! So I braced myself and went through all of them. It was kind of initiation for me. After that, I’ve got a sake bug so to speak. I wanted to learn more about different types of sake, how sake is made, who makes it and so on. I bought the excellent John Gantner’s book about sake and eventually started this blog.

3 reasons to go to sake tasting

Since my first sake tasting, I’ve been to many more. There are a few reasons I go to these events. First of all, you have an opportunity to try new sake. Given the limited range of sake in the UK and generally high price (a bottle of good sake will cost you from around 20 to 60 quid but premium sake might fetch a few hundred), sake tastings are the only way to try a sake you’ve never tried before.

Sake Tasting at Hedonism Wines

The second reason is obviously my blog. The events give me a lot of ideas about new posts. I can write about the sake I liked and about any new trends in the industry. Also, I always learn one or two new things about breweries and sake brewing and find out about any upcoming products in the UK.

Another reason I love these events is the people. It’s always great to catch up with those I’ve met before and make new friends. Sometimes you meet the people you know only from Instagram or Twitter and to see them finally in flesh is priceless. The only awkward thing is that you keep to call them in your head by their social media nicks.

Types of sake tasting events

There are a few types of sake tasting events usually taking place in London. I would divide them into two types of free events and two type of events you have to pay.

  1. Free events orgnised by either sake associations or other sake institutions. It includes the annual IWC Award Winning Sake Tasting, London Sake Challenge Tasting, some events organised by the Japanese government and prefectures.
  2. Free events at Japanese food stores and normal wine shops which sell sake: Japan Centre,  Ichiba, Hedonism Wines. They often involve breweries presenting their sake.
  3. Paid but sponsored events. You usually pay a reasonable fee but it might not cover all the costs. Usually, merchants and breweries sponsor these events by providing their products for free or with a discount.
  4. Commercial sake tastings, when you basically pay a full price for the sake you try. 

International Sake Day at Hedonism Wines

The most recent was the International Sake Day Tasting at Hedonism Wines last week. The event featured more than 50 sake presented by House of Sake (who curated the event), Tengu Sake,  Tazaki Foods, Raeburn Fine Wines, and Asahi (Dassai), Tosatsuru and Ichinokura Breweries. Ooph, I hope I’ve listed them all!

Everybody was very passionate about the sake they were presenting. It was very interesting to observe different approaches employed by different people. For example, Honami from House of Sake was doing introduction rounds, when she was going through all the sake she was presenting one by one in a special order giving a short introduction for each.

 Red Turtle Junmai Daiginjo
Honami, House of Sake, presenting Red Turtle Junmai Daiginjo

Anri, Dassai’s European PR and Marketing Director, was royally reserved reflecting the idea that  Dassai doesn’t need a special introduction (which is true!). Oliver from Tengu Sake was very engaging talking quite passionately about the sake his company sells. David from Raeburn was quite intriguing just in line with very unusual sake he was offering to try.

There were a huge number of very good sake. Some of them I had tried and drunk before, like amazing Kinsuzume 2017 Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo (see my post about the IWC event) or Urakusumi Zen Junmai Ginjo, an excellent offering from Tosa Brewing Company and Tosatsuru Brewery (see my post about them).

Dassia 50, Dassai 39, Dassai 23 and Dassai Beyond
Dassai 50, 39, 23 and Beyond

However, there were many sake I wanted to try. Dassai Beyond was one of them. It’s a very premium (the bottle cost over £400) and special sake. Contrary to the usual convention, the company doesn’t reveal its polishing ratio. I’m sure it’s below 10% though. It has a very delicate aroma and very subtle taste, almost like water, but not ordinary water. More like the water from a magical spring or kind of a heavenly water. It’s very smooth and easy to drink. It almost lacks personality but on the other hand, it was its personality. Or should I say, it’s beyond personality!

Another sake I wanted to put to a test was Tatenokawa 8 Junmai Daiginjo. Tatenokawa Brewery makes only very premium sake. This one, given its 8% polishing ratio, was a superpremium one (over £400 for a bottle again!) in the same category as Dassai Beyond. I wonder if they compete with each other. Tatenokawa 8, however, was a very different sake. Its personality was bursting out! The sake had the great combination of a delicate aroma and a very distinctive taste with a zing and full-bodiness

Tengu Sake, Tatenokawa 8
Oliver, Tengu Sake,says: Tatenokawa 8 is soooo good!

There were many other sake I really liked but to list them will bore you. Sake are for drinking, not listing! In my opinion, the overall choice of sake at the event was excellent ranging from nice and casual to super premium and very exclusive sake.

Ichinokura Brewery
Enomoto-san from Ichinokura Brewery presenting Taru Tokubetsu Junmai

For me, it was an excellent occasion to try the sake I can’t afford or different to find. I tried various brands and types of sake to make sure that I buy something I like next time. (It is not that I have bought any sake I don’t like so far!) In the end, I bought a bottle of Fukukomach Junmai Ginjo, which I will review next time.

Another thing I tried to do at the tasting was to describe the aroma of each sake I tasted. I was quite surprised to realise that after the Kikisake-shi course I did a few weeks back my ability had significantly improved. It’s quite amazing how you can train your nose when you know what to look for. I remember when I was reading tasting notes before and then was trying to smell the same things I usually failed miserably. But this time for the first time I was smelling largely the same aromas I could then find in tasting notes! Wow, well done me! Well, it’s a shared credit with Satomi and Oliver, who did a great job t the course.

Sake tasting survival tips

So when you started to appreciate sake, tasting events are your best bet to try new things. However, it could be sometimes difficult to manage because alcohol is alcohol! It could be treacherous. Think about it. Let’s say you would like to try 40 sake. The usual amount poured in your glass is 15-25 ml. So overall it will add up to 1 litre of sake. Given the average alcohol content of 16%, it will be equal to over 1.5 bottle of wine. In reality, it might be even more. Some servers are more generous than others. Also, although there is always food at the events it’s usually not enough.

I experienced it at my last tasting at Hedonism Wines. I think I underestimated the amount of sake I was drinking and at after three hours of tasting, taking, taking pictures and enjoying myself I felt a bit tipsy. Another problem that even if you are careful with how much you drink, after 10-15 sake your taste buds lose its sharpness and you miss nuances and aromas of different sake.

So here are my tips for how to survive a sake tasting event:

  • If it is your first event, feel free to try as many sake as you like, but keep in mind that sake is stronger than wine. Drink responsibly!
  • If you have already been to sake tastings before than follow the following rules:
    •  Do your homework: look at the list of the sake, which will be at the tasting (if available) and decide which ones you definitely want to try. Start with them! Go to other sake only after you have finished your list.
    • If you don’t like the sake, spit it out. There are always spitting urns available. 
    • Carry a notebook or some kind of tasting notes with you to write down your impressions of sake you try. Even if you are careful not to drink much, it will be quite difficult to remember all the sake from the event after a while.
    • If you feel that you had enough but you still would like to try some sake, then try it and spit it out. You will still get all the main components of the sake’s taste and aroma. 

So if you like to know more about sake, to try different sake, and to start to appreciate them, find a sake tasting event near you to attend. I usually publish upcoming events at my Events page, so stay tuned. Hope to see you at the next tasting. Please share your own experience in the comments.



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.

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