How to Win a Shochu Tasting Contest

The inaugural Shochu & Awamori Tasting Contest has just been announced. The preliminary round takes place Monday February 6th to Saturday February 11th, 2012. Big prizes are avaialable. The Grand Prize winner gets $2,000 & 2 Round Trip Tickets to Japan. 2nd and 3rd place get nice cash and travel bonuses as well. But that’s the top 3 out of almost 50 people who qualify for the Final Round event at the Hotel Kitano on Wednesday, February 15th. All of this has me thinking about what it will take to win.

But before we get to my thoughts, a brief overview of the contest:

  • Put your nickel down ($30 to enter)
  • Sit down at your favorite Japanese restaurant (16 to choose from)
  • 5 bottles lined up in front of you
  • Snack on complimentary edamame as you sample the 5 different shochus and Awamori
  • Once you are ready, 3 “blind” test samples appear in front of you
  • Match the 3 samples to the correct 3 bottles of the 5
  • Earn points (1 point for 1 match; 4 pts for 2 matches; 10 pts for 3 matches, etc.)
  • Repeat again in the 2nd round (5 different bottles, 3 more blind tests)
  • Total up points (0, 1, 4, or 10 points in each round – total possible 0 to 20)
  • Win prizes (Top 3 at each restaurant win gift certificates + those great top prizes)

It’s essentially a “taste memory” contest. Seems pretty simple, right?

Well, we tested this out on a few friends. These are people who know shochu, drink it regularly, and here’s what we found.

  • A Japanese businessman scored 0 points.
  • A Japanese restaurant employee scored 1.
  • Our resident marketing expert scored 1. And you’ve seen Mad Men so you know how those guys can drink.

So can you win the contest? Sure you can. And here are some tips. These are for those who are in it to win it.


1. Choose your restaurant wisely. The website will update the high scores at each restaurant daily throughout the contest (February 6-11). Look for a restaurant with low high score or where not all 3 places are occupied yet. Only 3 contestants from each restaurant qualify for the final round at the Hotel Kitano. Doesn’t matter if only 3 people played at that restaurant or if 300 people played at that restaurant. Maximize your chances.

2. Play Often. Didn’t score well the first time, but think you can do better the next time? Nothing against the rules about playing a 2nd (or 3rd) time on different nights to improve your score. However, if you place in the top 3 at different restaurants or in the top 3 multiple times at one restaurant, you can only go to Hotel Kitano for the Final Round once.

3. Sleep well, don’t drink the night before. A dull head from a night of heavy drinking or too little sleep lasts well into the next day. You don’t want to be hungover when you try this contest. Think of this as a job interview or a big meeting. You’ve got to be at your best.

4. Don’t drink booze beforehand. The contest ticket gives you free edamame and 2 complimentary drinks in addition to the approximately 5 oz of shochu and Awamori you’ll be sampling during the event. Don’t use those drink coupons until the contest is over. Don’t order any drinks before you start playing. The alcohol is going to progressively numb your tastebuds and dull your memory. That’s part of what makes this game so challenging.


5. Use your nose. Before you taste anything, smell all 5 samples (smell all 3 blind tests as well). What’s that scent? Alcohol? Earth? Herb? Skunk? Notice anything distinct that might help you? Say it out loud. You’ll be surprised how many shochus smell different, but taste similar. Being able to pair this information will greatly enhance your chances of a high score. During the blind test part of the contest, if you manage to match a shochu by scent alone you’ve saved yourself some alcohol intake, which can come in handy late in the contest.

6. Drink sparingly. Yes, this is a drinking contest. Yes, you paid $30 to enter and want your money’s worth. But what’s more important? Finishing the drinks in front of you or winning a $200 gift certificate and a chance to win $2,000 and 2 round-trop tickets to Japan? Don’t drink it all down at once. Taste a bit. Save some for a 2nd or 3rd or 4th impression. Once you believe you know enough about that particular sample to identify it again, push it close to its bottle. When all 5 cups are close to their bottles, you’re ready for the test.

7. Use water and edamame. The water will help you hydrate and wash your mouth clean. The edamame will serve as a palate cleanser. It’s not pickled ginger, but it helps. Don’t be afraid to ask for a pitcher of water to refill your own glass.

8. Matching. Are you 95% sure you’ve got a match? Go with your gut. If the scent or first sip points you directly to a bottle, set that glass in front of that bottle. This makes it much easier for you to match the other 2. Repeat until each of your blind samples have been paired. Sniff them one more time or even taste them to confirm if you need to be sure. Keep an open mind. Like I said earlier, many shochus smell different, but taste similar. The converse is also true. Very different flavored shochus can smell almost identical.

9. Double check your answers. Unlike when you started the contest when you were confident and alert, now you’ve slowed down a bit and you’ve tried 10 different shochus. You’ve got to recall the scents and flavors of each one to get a top score. Bravado in pushing the glasses to the bottles quickly may result in anguish later. You’ll also need to write your guesses down on a score sheet, but be sure to write down the correct bottle numbers. This is what happened to our marketing guy. He had one of the shochus pegged, but wrote down the wrong bottle number so he got 1 point instead of 4.


10. Be a good sport. Did you do poorly? Are you frustrated? Miss 1 shochu in the 2nd round to keep you from a perfect score and an invite to Hotel Kitano? Don’t take it out on you friends, the contest server, or the waitstaff. Have one of those complimentary drinks and something to eat. Enjoy the rest of your night. Want to try again? Don’t do it right then (remember, NY law prohibits it)! Wait until you’re sober the next night.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll win prizes or make it to the finals if you follow these tips, but I can guarantee that this will give you your best chance. The rest is up to you.

Oh, and yes. I will be competing.  Hope to see you at the Hotel Kitano!




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  1. […] a bit of hubris before the competition started, I wrote a piece on how to win a shochu tasting contest. In fairness, I wrote that before I decided to enter. Only after a bit of coaxing from friends did […]

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