Wacky rices: a new Sake Sommelier course

Location: Japan
Other: Business

The Sake Sommelier Association has just launched its first course for aspiring saké sommeliers. Richard Woodard wrestles with hunchbacks, soy sauce and Japanese symbols to give it a taste-drive

It has to be one of the more surreal days of my career as a drinks journalist. What began with a cartoon drawing of a singing hunchback has ended, amid gentle post-exam euphoria, with a Japanese saké brewer running through his full repertoire of magic tricks.

This, if you haven’t already guessed, is the second day of the UK’s first-ever Certified Saké Sommelier Course, and I’m surrounded by various sommeliers, saké nuts and people who, like me, are just a bit curious to know more about this mysterious drink.

Ensconced in a classroom at the headquarters of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), we’re being given the full saké SP by a three-person team: Xavier Chapelou and Kumiko Ohta, founders of saké importer Isaké, and course co-ordinator Gilbert Winfield.


Some people have come a long way for this – there are a couple of saké enthusiasts from Sweden, another from Paris, plus a sommelier working in the Maldives, alongside more local luminaries such
as Terravina owner Gérard Basset MW and Laure Patry of Maze.

After whistling through saké history, production and tasting on the first day of the course, it’s now time to consider saké labels –and that means singing hunchbacks, babies playing with string and well-built chaps called dai.

It’s fair to say that saké brewers are not renowned for their Western-friendly labelling, and the collection of hieroglyphs on a typical bottle makes the most gothic German Trockenbeerenauslese label a contender for the Plain English award.

‘It’s pretty confusing,’ Ohta tells the bemused throng, somewhat unnecessarily. No kidding – the only vaguely recognisable bits are two Western numerals showing alcohol level and the rice polishing ratio. Otherwise, it’s aesthetically rather beautiful, but utterly meaningless.


So let’s bring on the cartoon mnemonics… You want to know how to recognise a bottle of ginjo (a type of saké where at least 40% of the rice grain has been polished away)? Then look for a singing hunchback – gin, or ‘singing’ – accompanied by a friendly-looking chap brewing a barrel of saké – jo (‘brewing’).

How about junmai (a saké that is produced purely from rice, with no added alcohol)? Obviously, you’ll be keeping an eye out for a baby playing with some string –jun, or ‘pure’ – alongside a rice cartoon –mai (‘rice’).

It’s always good, if somewhat cruel,

to watch legendary sommeliers await

their end-of-course exam results

Meanwhile, dai is a big (and presumably Welsh) lad who teams up with the singing hunchback and the saké brewer to denote daiginjo – a saké with at least 50% of the rice grain polished away.

So… If you can spot a baby, some rice, a large Welshman, a yodelling Quasimodo and a bloke with a barrel on a saké label, you’ve either been overdoing the ginjo or you’ve just found a pure rice saké with a high polishing ratio – likely to be a delicate, fruity example best served cool.

By this point, one or two jaws around the room have noticeably slackened, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Chapelou. ‘You have two alternatives,’ he warns the class. ‘Either you learn Japanese, or you learn this.’ Fair enough then.

And yes, it is all a little contrived – and, no, I’m not sure even now that I could tell a Welshman from a baby on a saké label. But the central idea – of demystifying the otherwise indecipherable – is laudable, and with a little refining it could work.

In fact, you could extend that comment to the whole course. The real saké anoraks made a few grumbles about mistakes or inconsistencies, but Ohta and Chapelou are learning as they go, and you sense that the course will evolve and develop the more they do it (the next one is due to be held in February – see box below).

There’s the odd clumsy moment, but a sensory dissection of umami by tasting green tea, grapefruit and soy sauce on a tiny spoon is inspired, and the sheer breadth of the sakés tasted is, for most, worth the admission price alone: wood-aged, cloudy, red, vintage, sweet… Hot or cold, matched with a rice cracker, with almond and cheese, or even with a 66% cocoa Valrhona chocolate.

And it’s always good, if somewhat cruel, to watch legendary sommeliers such as Basset come over all sweaty-palmed as they await their end-of-course exam results (for the record, the great man secured the necessary 70% pass rate in the 30-question multiple-choice paper, as did 14 of the other 16 participants).

Then there’s the finale… during the second day, Naniwa Saké Brewery president Kazuhiro Naruko has been sitting in on the course, contributing the odd insight via his uncertain English and Ohta’s interpretation.

He’s an amiable, smiley fellow, only too happy to crack open one of his prize sakés for a spot of post-exam celebration – before segueing effortlessly into a David Blaine-style series of card tricks, sleights-of-hand and bewildering illusions. A fair exchange, really – we did a pretty good job of making his saké disappear.



‘It’s been good, when you think it’s their first time. You needed to know something about it beforehand or else you could have been completely lost. But fortunately I did.

‘I would like to put some saké on the list – not a huge amount, because we wouldn’t do a huge volume. It’s different if you have a brasserie in London, but I might only get 10 customers a month drinking it.

‘Selling saké is different in different places. With me, it has to be by-the-glass. Then I could say “try that” and maybe they will have wine afterwards.

‘If I could sell a glass of saké at £5 or £7 in my place, then that might work. But having 20 sakés on my list would just be pretentious.’


‘For me personally, the course was very good on the whole production side of things, which was the most interesting aspect, and the tasting helped with all the different styles.

‘I like the ginjo and daiginjo. If you think about sherry, people know sherry, but they don’t know what grapes are used to make it – it’s even more difficult with saké. You have to really talk people through it, but that’s our job as sommeliers.

‘We opened at the end of July and, as Shangri-La is owned by an Asian-based company, we get more guests from China, Japan and the rest of Asia. I’ve still got lots of work to do before listing any sakés, but I’m looking for good variation – maybe six or eight different types, including one with added alcohol.’


‘I liked the opportunity to be able to learn about saké, which is quite complex. I also liked the tasting as it’s quite difficult to taste saké in London. I thought it was a bit short in a day-and-a-half to learn it all – perhaps it should be more spread out, like other WSET courses.

‘At Maze, I list saké from Isaké – they have been a great help in introducing me to saké and I am definitely thinking of extending the list. I choose sakés which will go well with the style of food at Maze – delicate, soft and lighter-style sakés are better for us as we do mainly fish and lighter dishes.

‘I do it by the glass already. It’s the duty of the sommelier to recommend it or add it to the flight selection, and it can be introduced at the chef’s table to complement one dish.’

The venue of the next Certified Saké Sommelier Course is yet to be confirmed. The two-day course is priced at £230 per person. To book, email: [email protected]

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January / February 2010

CORRECTION: In the ‘Wacky Rices’ feature that appeared in the January issue of Imbibe, we mistakenly gave the impression that the sake educational courses were being run by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. In fact, these courses are run by the Sake Sommelier Association, and have nothing to do with the WSET whatsoever. We apologise for any confusion caused by the mix-up.

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