Sake Judging – International Wine Challenge 2014
In April, I hopped the pond to London to act once again as the Sake Panel Chairman, something I have done each and every year since sake was admitted for judging at the IWC six years ago, and attacked almost 800 sakes for two glorious days of work! Yes indeed my friends sake judging is work. A crap load of work and no matter how glamorous it sounds to be a professional judge or taster let me go on the record as saying it is a very difficult proposition to taste, re-taste, and in many cases re-taste close to 800 sakes for hours on end. Poor Me! Nope, pour me!! My point is that we don’t just sit around, sip some sake and throw medals at bottles. We work our collective asses off!
This year was filled with many new and fun surprises. First, there were a record number of “international” entrants, and as you can guess that means submitted sakes from brewers not in Japan. You betcha! There were world sakes from all over the globe. How did they do? In the back of my mind I thought for sure that this would be the year that an “international” brew would medal, and to be honest as a member of “management” we didn’t really have a plan to prepare for this possibility. So in our meetings before the tasting we spoke about the best way to judge international sake.
There were legitimate concerns from members that international standards for sake were not the same as the standards set forth in Japan by the governing bodies. Sake is regulated in Japan and is controlled to meet a set of standards such as milling percentages and classifications. You cannot mill or polish rice 30% with 70% remaining and call it Daiginjo! As such several folks felt that the “international” entrants could have taken advantage of mis-classifying their sakes to get an advantage in certain categories. So they were of the mind to judge the international sakes separately.
I and most of the other chairmen felt that it was best to add the international sakes to those produced in Japan, because the point of making sake is to make good sake, and why treat the two separately. Do international sake makers want to make sake that is okay, or sake that is as good as sake made in Japan? I think that you can guess the answer. International sake makers aspire to make a product that is as good or better than sakes produced in the nation famous for making sake. Period! So we lumped the international brews in with the made in Japan sakes and let the baptism by fire take place. Did they medal? Wait a second. Hold your horses!
As you know the IWC is a blind sake tasting. And I mean blind. I have zero clue as to what sakes I have tasted, and don’t find out until a month later when they announce the results (on a side note, there are several sakes that I can just tell who and what they are, and it’s sort of fun when tasting hundreds of sakes you actually bump into them). So I had no idea if I was tasting a sake made in Norway or Nagano. Did any international sake medal? No! But, a friend of mine who is actually a sake maker in Norway sent me an email asking me what “Commended” meant, as his sakes were “Commended” at the IWC.
If you recall at the IWC we judge in two formats. The first day we judge the sakes as “Medal” “Commend” and “Out.” If they are Medals, then they move forward to day two where we judge them as “Gold”, “Silver”, “Bronze”, “Commend” and “Out.” This may sound confusing but a sake that received a “medal” on day one could be reduced to “commend” on day two. To keep us on our toes, the organizers will actually replace several “Commend” and “Out” sakes from day one to day two to look for consistency in our judging. So I replied to the brewer that “Commend” is good, not as good as a medal, but good enough that you would recommend that sake to a friend. It is better than “Out” which means bad or even a damaged sake. In the end not a single international sake medaled, but many were commended and that is a great start!
This year also saw the addition of sparkling sakes and “ordinary” or futsushu sakes that are sort of your everyday table sake. These two categories are a challenge to judge for several reasons. The first challenge was to determine when to taste them! It’s hard to taste a Junmai sake flight followed by a sparking sake flight, followed by a Daiginjo flight. And the same went for the futsushu or “ordinary” sakes, as they are not as drinkable as Ginjo or Daiginjo sakes and it’s unfair to compare the two. And this was where we as the “professional” judges had to really focus on NOT comparing the sakes, and we concentrated on judging each flight as its own flight void of anything else. It’s pretty difficult, but essential.
How did the sparking sakes and ordinary sakes do? They received medals! And trophies! Not a lot but enough to set the categories going forward. It was a great beginning. Last year I had walking pneumonia when judging for the two days, so I must say that this year’s tasting was far more fun and enjoyable. If you would like to see the results for the IWC Medal Winners of 2014 please click here: IWC 2014 Sake Medals
And if you would like to taste one or two of the medal winners think about trying several of these sakes that are available at True Sake:
• An extremely flavorful “kimoto” or traditionally pole rammed sake that is round and feels great.
• This “dessert” sake has been aged 8 years and drinks like a fine port or sherry.
Ichinokura Kura no Hana
• A very special Junmai Daiginio that has layers and layers of flavors on a very gentle soft flow.
• This “yamahai” or traditionally made sake is a very rich and powerful walk in the frisky sake wilds.
• From Yamagata Prefecture this sake is a wonderful play between balance and flavor.
• This “ultra” Daiginjo represents sake at the pinnacle of achievement – amazing flavor meets amazing technique.