Sake Tasting (Kikizake-kai)
Gathering together to sample a selection of handpicked sakes with friends or like-minded individuals is an extremely civilized affair. The Japanese call these tastings kikizakekai, ‘sake gatherings’. These can be informal or highly serious, ‘blind tastings’ where the sake type and maker remains secret, or details can be seen by everyone. There may be a theme, such as sakes all produced in the same area or of the same classification, but it certainly isn’t compulsory. All the equipment you need is a choko sake cup and several different sakes.
The pros use a kikichoko ‘tasting cup’ made of white porcelain and imprinted with concentric blue circles at the bottom. This is designed to allow the taster to evaluate the sake’s color and transparency.
Having checked the visuals, the tester examines the sake’s fragrance, the ‘top notes’, and takes a sip, simultaneously breathing out through the nose. This is to evaluate the hikikomika flavor-in-the mouth. The taster will then roll the sake around the tongue, assessing dryness or fruitiness, flavor-balance, and other taste sensations. The sake is then, in theory, expelled into a spittoon, but only the most serious sake-tasting pros do this!
We recommend an informal gathering with around half a dozen sakes. If you explain to a serious sake dealer that you are planning a tasting, they will happily suggest a variety of to suit your budget. We suggest you cover the main sake categories: junmai, honjozo, junmai ginjo or ginjo, junmai daiginjo or daiginjo, namazake and nigori. You might also like to throw a yamahaijikomi ‘wild-brewed’ sake into the mix, as their flavor profiles are distinctive and unpredictable.
Most tastings take place with sake served at room temperature, or gently chilled, but you are free to do as you please. If you don’t mind bending – or totally dispensing with – the rules, why not serve some sake-friendly dishes to add to the conviviality? We prefer our kikizakekai as parties, not lab tests, but maybe that’s just us?
© John F. Ashburne.