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SSI Kikisake-shi: rest of the course and exam tips

After writing the first part about the International Kikisake-shi course I wanted to wait until my exam results are back. And I have passed! What a relief. So back to my story. And I have some Kikisake-shi exam tips in case you would like to become a sake professional too.

Day 2: How sake is made and the industry’s overview

The second day was the most technical one. We were talking about how the sake is made as well as did a fair amount of tasting going deeper into flavours, aromas and types of sake. 

Sake making process is quite complicated and is not straightforward. It took us a couple of hours to go through its main stages and to look into the nitty-gritty of the brewing cycle. The fact that most of the terminology are Japanese words made the process even more difficult. However, Satomi and Oliver not only knew the subject very well but were very good at explaining the complexity and technicalities of sake creation. They took us through the brewing cycle bit by bit using presentation slides, videos and some real examples like for example main types of rice and sake lees, which we could even get a taste of.  

Kikisake-shi Sake Course: brewing
The complexity of the sake brewing process explained

Another interesting discussion was about the sake market in Japan. When you go to a Japanese supermarket here, your impression is that most of sake are at least ginjo and less premium categories are not very big. However, it’s completely opposite in Japan. Most of the Japanese sake market is futsushu, a table sake. Despite a decline in demand and strong growth in junmai and ginjo categories, it still accounts for more than 65% of the total sake sales in the country. 

Tasting continued

On the tasting side, we started using a so-called tasting wheel, which breaks down the flavours into major categories and gives you examples of flavours in each of them. It proved to be very useful, at least for me. Basically, you have fruity, mineral, floral etc. categories and a number of flavours in each of them. For example, the fruity one has apple, peach, melon and many others. While you don’t have to stick to these flavours and can always come up with your own, it’s very helpful, especially at the beginning. It helps develop the right language and vocabulary for describing the sake you try and drink. For me, as a blogger, it was probably the most valuable aspect of the whole Kikisake-shi course.

Kikisake-shi Sake Course: tasting wheel
The Great Tasting Wheel in action

Another topic connected with tasting was umami, the mysterious fifth taste, discovered in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century and still not that widely used in the West. You can often read in sake descriptions that it’s “full of umami” and complements “umami-rich food”. It refers to the savoury taste intrinsic for example to junmai sake but appearing in other types of sake as well. The examples of umami include fish stocks, mushrooms, cured meats and miso. So a good understanding of umami is very important for describing and understanding the taste of sake. We did a couple of fun experiments with umami components to get a better grasp of the taste.

Day 2: Sake highlights

Edo period sake
Shirayuki Edo Genroku Junmai courtesy to Tengu Sake

Shirayuki Edo Genroku Junmai was one of the highlights of the day for me. This sake is an authentic reproduction of the sake made during the Edo period. The recipe is going back to 1703 and the brewery, Konishi Shuzo, has been around for more than 460 years. Sake that time was very different from what we drink now. First of all, the rice polishing technology was very rudimentary thus the polishing ratio of Shirayuki Edo Genroku Junmai is 88%. Secondly, the sake is quite sweet and quite viscous as only half of the usual volume of water is used to brew it. Sugar in Japan that time was still a rarity, so people preferred sweeter sake. Also, it was quite customary to dilute the sake with water while drinking similar to the way people drank wine in France during the same period.

Shirayuki Edo Genroku Junmai is a full-bodied sake, full of umami and dried fruit flavours. It looked and tasted like koshu (aged sake) although it’s not. It should be great with pork belly, oily fish or prosciutto and cheese with thick confiture. The sake is sold in an old style ceramic bottle, which stands out straight away when you see it.

Another sake I liked was Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo. It’s a light and fruity sake with smooth but crispy texture, tropical fruit aroma and dry finish.  It’s very easy to drink and could be paired with fish and seafood, light salad or steamed chicken. Tatenokawa is one of a few breweries which brew only junmai daiginjo sake.

Special Mention

I can’t fail to mention the sake brewed by Philip Harper, Tamagawa Yamahai Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu. But the time you finish reading its name, someone could already drink half of the bottle! It’s a weird sake in a good sense. Basically, it’s an unpasteurised sake made using a yamahai method, aged for a year under room temperature, undiluted and not filtered with carbon. It is a full-bodied sake with wild and intense flavour and taste with yoghurt and cheese notes. I can’t say that I liked it very much, but it was definitely interesting to try. I would definitely like to try it again to understand the flavours and the taste better.

Day 3: Serving sake

The last day of the course was actually a half-day. The main theme of the day was how to serve sake. It’s a very important skill for any Kikisake-shi. Satomi and Oliver set up a table full of various sakeware. It had small ochoko, big and rough guinomi, wide sakazuki, wooden masa with hints of delicate cedar scent, graceful katakuchi, tall and proud tokkuri and a lavish kiriko set. It also has a couple of sake warming sets and a few other items related to serving sake.

Kikisake-shi Sake Course: sakeware
Sakeware for every taste

We talked about what vessels to use to serve different types of sake, how to warm sake, how to pour sake and so on. One of the tips Oliver gave us about choosing a sake cup in an izakaya (Japanese pub) was to pick up the biggest one!

We had also a very interesting discussion about sake serving rules and customs. Oliver and Satomi actually did a bit of role-playing, showing how to present sake at a restaurant. We also had our chance to play a role of either a sommelier or sake consultant to present various sake to a person next to you. Not sure I was particularly good at it but I did my best! Honestly. Before finishing the course we did another tasting session and do some practice in blind tasting for the exam. It was also fun.

Kikisake-shi Sake Course: sake serving
How to serve sake properly from Satomi san

Day 3: Sake highlights

Kikisake-shi Sake Course
Chilled bodaimoto is great after the course

Gozenshu Junmai Bodaimoto “Rocky Mountain” was my favourite sake of the last day. Bodaimoto is an ancient brewing method predating kimoto. Rocky Mountain is a medium-bodied sake with tropical fruits aroma and hints of chocolate and orange peel in the taste. It’s medium sweet and has the creamy texture and medium finish. 

It could be paired with fuller and richer foods, creamy sauces, meat dishes and would be great as a drink at your BBQ party! Although I had it chilled on its own just after the Kikisake-shi course to reflect on my learning. It was very relaxing.

Kikisake-shi Exam Tips

To get your Kikisake-shi qualification, you have to pass the exam. It usually takes place a couple of weeks after the course to give you time to revise. The exam lasts for 3.5 hours and consists of three parts. The first and the second parts are combinations of multiple choice and open questions, while the third part includes a practical task to do a blind test of two sake and write up tasting notes for each.

The preparation and the exam itself turned out quite stressful for me. I haven’t done an exam for years. Also, I felt that I didn’t allocate enough time to prepare for it. In any case, everything went well!

So after doing the course and passing the exam I’ve got a few tips for those who would like to do the same:

  1. The exam covers pretty much the whole course in great details. For example, we had questions about which prefecture grows which rice or what is the name of certain stages of the sake brewing process. So look at the details, while you are revising. 
  2. There was one question, which wasn’t particularly clear due to either mistake or the translation issues. If you see something which seems not to be right, ask the examiner. In our case, we were told the answer to the ambiguous question.
  3. Try to practise your tasting skills. This part was the most difficult. I know that some people did very well on the two first parts but failed the third. So try to do some blind tasting while revising (just don’t overdo it!).

Overall impression

Overall, I’m really happy that I took the Kikisake-shi sake course. It gave me a very good start for developing my tasting skills and provided with the excellent vocabulary to describe flavours and tastes. I’ve got the rare opportunity not only to try more than 40 sake but also to discuss them in class. , The course helped me summarise and revise my existing knowledge of the industry, brewing process and learn a lot of new information. I also found the textbook very useful. I now use it as a reference book quite often. Another great outcome of the course is that I made a few very good friends there. One of them even organised an excellent sake party at his flat.

So if you are thinking about a professional sake course which gives you a Japanese qualification, the SSI International Kikisake-shi course is a great option. It not only gives you great knowledge of the sake history, classification, brewing process, industry and teaches how to serve sake. The course also helps you develop great tasting skills and provides with a broad sake vocabulary so you can describe your experience in great detail. Take a course, pass the exam and celebrate your achievement with a glass or two of some unusual sake!



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.