Kikizake (sake tasting) (利き酒)
Kikizake (sake tasting, written as 利き酒, ききざけ, 唎き酒 or きき酒) refers to evaluating the sake quality. This section describes the details of kikizake of Japanese liquor.
Kikizake originated as a sensory evaluation conducted at sake breweries to decide whether the sake quality is eligible for shipping. It also refers to simply tasting sake at 'sake tasting events' held by izakaya bars and sake retailers, some of which developed into tasting competitions.
In the food business, it is a skill much like that of wine sommeliers required for giving advice tailored to each customer's palate or exploring matching food. The term kikizake may also be used for wine or shochu (distilled spirit) tasting.
Use a sake tasting cup, commonly called 'janome,' which is a white ceramic cup with two concentric circles in dark blue painted inside the cup on the bottom. Professional tasters use a larger cup that contains sho-ni-go (360 ml). The three elements to be evaluated are color, aroma and flavor.
Pour sake into the cup eight tenths, and visually check the appearance. Check the color over the white surface, and clarity (color criteria for sake) over the borders of white and indigo colors. A freshly made sake has a blue tint, whereas an old one has a yellow tint. A reddish one contains iron and is inferior in quality. High clarity is a sign of high carbon filtration fraction, in which case the flavor is often bland.
Next, gradually bring the nose closer and smell the aroma (sake aroma). Check the good aspects, such as ginjoka (flavor of ginjo sake, the top quality sake) and fruity aroma, and bad aspects, such as filtration smell (smell of the filter bag), fusel oil odor, hineka (sake aroma that has deteriorated over time), nama-hineka (sake aroma that deteriorated before the heating process), added flavors (yakoman, fruity aroma collected in the fermentation process and added later), and kiga (sake aroma of the wood or barrel).
Take a small amount of sake (around 4 ml) in the mouth and let it swirl around on your tongue to taste. Inhale air through the mouth and exhale through the nose to check the aroma (retronasal aroma). Spit the sake out of your mouth and check the after-taste (sabake). The sake can be swallowed to feel it go down the throat, but only a small amount can be used for tasting.
Whereas wine tasting adopts a point-addition system in general, kikizake for tasting sake basically adopts a point-deduction scoring system. Many liquor critics criticize the scoring system, having an evaluation criterion such as 'deducting points when the sake is colored,' for having brought about the "tanrei karakuchi" (light, dry, crisp style) sake boom during which sake products with less and less colors and flavors were produced.
Prepare two groups of sake samples of different brands; assign numbers 1, 2, 3 and on and arrange them according to the numbers for sake samples in one group, while assign alphabets A, B, C and on and arrange them by changing the orders of the letters for those in the other group. First, taste all the sake samples in one group and then taste those in the other group and find matches.
Usually, five kinds of sake are used in the competition. However, in the national sake tasting competition, as much as 11 different brands are arranged, making the mathematical chance of matching all the brands 40 million to one and less.
A private association called Sake Service Institution (SSI) conducts and certifies the qualification of the 'sake taster' and 'licensed sake taster'. The qualification for the sake taster certification is offered to any person aged 20 and over; applicants are required to take a workshop conducted by SSI and pass the written and practical exams to be certified. To qualify for certification as a licensed sake taster, which is a more advanced certification, applicants are required to be certified as a sake taster or shochu adviser.
The certification puts more emphasis on the tasting ability and requires the applicants to be an 'evangelist of Japanese sake.'