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Sake Relevance - BT Does The IWC in the UK

The International Wine Challenge (IWC) is an annually judged wine tasting event that takes place in London every April. Last year was the first year that this prestigious competition included sake. This year they asked me to act as a Senior Judge for the sake tasting. How could I turn down the opportunity to taste over 300 brews? I couldn't and I didn't!


The IWC is the largest private tasting event in the wine world and over 3,500 wines get graded accordingly. One of the co-founders Sam Harrop MW - which means Master of Wine and is quite an accomplishment - is a fellow Sake Samurai, who was formally a buyer for Marks and Spencer. The President of the Sake Samurai Association Mr. Koichi Saura (better known as the owner of Urakasumi brewery) asked if I would do the honor of representing sake and the Sake Samurai at this heavily skewed-towards-wine event. Duty and honor called and I took to London in April to not only act as the Senior Judge but to co-host a Sake Master Class for all of the professionals in attendance.


For two weeks in April the best European/Asian/American wine experts descend upon the MASSIVE Barbican Center in London to rip apart over 3,500 wines giving grades to each wine from 1-100. I will never forget the image of well over 10,000 wine and sake bottles (each vintner and brewer had to send 6 bottles per entry for quality control issues lined up in columns on the floor of two huge rooms. It looked like the famed Terracotta Soldiers buried deep within Chinese soil.) Please see picture, which sadly I had to take with my phone as I forgot my camera!


Last year the IWC graded 120 sakes and this year that number exploded to over 300. Can anybody send wine or sakes to be graded? Yes! But one must pay roughly $300 per entrant plus the expense of sending a case to London. In return brewers or vintners may advertise their grades/awards (Bronze-Silver-Gold) from the IWC to the consumer world.


In all there were 23 judges for the sake competition (14 men and 8 women). Many of the judges flew in from Japan - most were local to Europe and were an assortment of sommeliers and retailers from different EU nations. I was pretty impressed with the quality of the judges. Several of the older Japanese judges are heroes in the sake world including Mr. Koji Takahashi who is a "fermentation professor" at the best Ag university in Japan and has personally trained royal subjects in Japan, Kenichi Ohashi who is recognized as the best "Caviste" in Japan and is also a retailer, and Satoshi Kimijima who owns the best sake and wine store in Yokohama (awesome place). Other notables from Europe were Simon Hofstra from Holland Ake Nordgren from Sweden, Jean-Louis Naveilhan and Emma Dalton from the UK.


Our task was to taste the brews in flights ranging from 8-12 per flight - grade personally then discuss for a consensus grade given by myself. Each flight had parameters such as a Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Dai Ginjo flight or a Junmai flight or a Ginjo flight etc with a bottling date on each brew. There were no completely mixed flights! And of course each bottle of sake was covered to keep its identity unknown. As the Senior Judge I was briefed to speak to the group about flavor and balance points and also to find faults if a sake was deemed to be faulty and as such would need another bottle to examine. The scoring sheet went as follows 50-69 POOR / 70-74 MEDIOCRE / 75-79 ADEQUATE / 80-84 COMMENDED / 85-100 MEDAL. This was for the first day of tasting. Only the Senior Judges would re-taste the Medalists the second day.


Before we started tasting I spoke to the group about some things that they should consider. As the flights were all pretty much categorical I made the serious point of judging each sake separately as a stand- alone brew. I did not want them to compare two or three off of each other to derive a grade. I also wanted them to taste for their field. I said forget yourself and being the "champion of your own palate" - grade as if you were standing over a table as a sommelier for your diners or grade as a store owner thinking for his/her customers. I focused on balance and drinkability.


From the very first flight it became evident - shockingly evident - that the Japanese palate and the European/Western palate were at odds! The scores in some instances were 10-15 points a part on brews. On a personal note I noticed that amongst the judges I had a Japanese Junmai perspective and a Western Ginjo/Dai Ginjo perspective. I felt as if I leaned towards more impact with the G's and DG's and the Japanese guys were going lighter and dryer. I was sort of in hog heaven asking why as Swedish guy gave a Ginjo an 82 and a Japanese Sommelier why he gave the exact same brew a 70? (God I love talking about sake!)


My job was to extract a consensus - not to make up minds - and more often than not when we re-tried a certain problematic brew the far apart tasters were not really ready to raise or decrease their number. So usually I tossed the high and low and looked for a grouping that best targeted the strength of each sake. Out of the lot I probably had to pick the final grade just from my expertise for roughly 12-15 brews. That said I was pretty stingy! I am not proud of this, but I did not give out many awards. There were more overall golds given this year than last, but the silver and bronze numbers were down. (I had some very serious discussions with the founders of this event about this - in one sense they are wine purists who know when a wine should score well or not, but they also know that it would be better for their overall marketability if more sakes received medals to show to the sake drinking world.)


The first day went extremely well, but I was really blown away by the variance and style differences between the Japanese and Western palates. Most of the Japanese judges had what I call the "old Japanese guy" palate, which has an affinity for lighter and dryer Ginjo and Dai Ginjo sakes with lots of astringency and long tails. They preferred almost a crispness that borders on an appreciation for an alcohol taste. Full, compact and brisk. Whereas the Western drinkers like the more "wine-like" brews with lots of fruit and lots of acidity - with most of the action going on up front and not in the finish. But then the Junmai category flights brought out the inverse, where the Japanese judges liked the more full-bodied and rich brews - with a hint of umami - and the Western judges preferred the lighter and dryer brews that had almost a tannin-like dryness to them. Without seeing all of the stats I'd argue that the Westerners gave out more medals than the Japanese judges, but the Japanese judges gave out more golds. (This is speculation on my behalf.)


The second day was made up of the Senior Judges and representatives of the IWC founder's committee. Our task was to take the Medalists and to determine if in fact they deserved medals and then which brews won each of the categories. We also added extra "prefecture" trophies for brews that deemed respect but did not win outright in their category. This was excellent stuff! On the whole the quality of the winners was very evident! But there were several sakes that I felt just did not belong - at all! Therein rests the reasons why we voted as a group.


I am not at liberty to say which categories had the most Medalists, and also which categories had the most trophies. But I can say that when selecting the grand champion of the event - comparing all category winners in one flight - I voted my heart and not my head. My head would have gone along with the very slim majority who felt the champion of the show was the best brew and would be more universally available and appealing to the masses. My heart gave a 99 to a sake that was flat out superb and truly a sake that sake lovers would enjoy. But it does not have the same universal appeal and availability as the eventual winner. (On a side and personal note - the Honjozo flights were great across the board and perhaps my favorites.)


I think that in retrospect the event was a fabulous success. Of course we had some kinks. We had some issues. But the end result was that the sakes spoke for themselves and the tasting participants from Japan and "everywhere else" reached a commonality in scope and appreciation for certain brews. In this light I was reminded that I tasted the winners from the 2007 IWC after a massive tasting event that I did in Fushimi last year and was not really impressed - maybe it had something to do with the over 400 brews that I had just tasted. Bottom line - and this holds true in most tasting occasions such as this - the brews for that moment in time caught the attention of a majority of tasters and they represent a brewing second in the clockwork of making sake.


This event and others like it will go a long way in exploring and highlighting the commonality and the differentiation between the Japanese and Western palate. There is indeed a difference! There is also a common appreciation for balance and well-made brews that transcends the many differences. The point is that wine drinkers make up only a segment of the Western drinkers and there is an entire monolithic group of sake drinkers who know what they do and don't like. As the West tastes more sake we will be in a better position in the future to determine drinking patterns that can and will be incorporated in the production of sake as a whole. So I will continue to rest on my motto of "Align with wine drinkers - Align with all drinkers!" for the promotion of sake.


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