Drink

Are you getting sake?

A growing number of sake sommeliers are driving a new appreciation for this highly nuanced drink and its remarkable food-matching abilities. John Stimpfig reports.

September 11 2009
John Stimpfig

Over the past three decades, Decanter magazine has organised dozens of lavish and exclusive winemaker dinners and tastings, featuring the great and the good from Krug to Grange. But in April it put on a reader event in the heart of London’s wine-centric clubland, which was truly pioneering and unprecedented.

It was also a little bit risky – particularly for Decanter’s new associate publisher, Sophia Dempsey, who came up with the idea of organising the magazine’s first sake dinner. “I had never been so nervous about any other event,” she says. “I really didn’t know if anyone would come, let alone what they would think about it.”

Much to Dempsey’s relief and surprise nearly 100 curious well-heeled oenophiles pitched up to the Alan Yau-operated Sake No Hana restaurant in St James’s to hear wine writer Anthony Rose and brewery president Kenji Ichishima hold forth on the ancient and venerable history of Nihonshu, not to mention its breathtaking range of styles and complex flavours. Into the bargain (and at £95 a head, it was a bargain), they also got to sample several of Ichishima’s finest and rarest daiginjo, ginjo and junmai sakes with a sumptuous Japanese tasting menu.

But if you want to drink good, authentic premium sake in London you don’t have to wait for an invitation from Decanter. There is now a core of top-class Japanese and Asian restaurants, led by Sake No Hana, Zuma, Umu, Sumosan, Cocoon and Chisou, which have been setting the sake bar ever higher.

This phenomenon is in marked contrast to the sake wasteland that existed in the capital several years ago when all you could buy was the cheap stuff that burned the tongue and left you with a hangover from hell. “In those days, London was a fairly dispiriting place if you wanted sake,” says Philip Harper, whose recently published The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur’s Guide is expertly aimed at neophyte consumers.

From the UK, Harper is the only non-Japanese master Toji (brewer) working in Japan, where he has lived for two decades. He is amazed by the progress in the UK. “There’s a real buzz about the sake scene, not unlike how New York was about a decade ago.”

But why now? One of the reasons is because almost everything to do with Japan is currently cool, including its cuisine. “So where sushi and sashimi have led, sake has followed,” says Wakana Omija, international brand development manager of the 142-year-old Akashi-Tai brewery in western Japan. “And, of course, the high-end restaurant-bar scene is always looking for something new and niche. Sake fills that slot to perfection.”

It’s taken a lot of groundwork to get here, particularly on the part of a small band of wine and restaurant professionals, as few people really knew about premium handmade sake until re­cently. Where and what to buy, how to keep and serve sake – let alone explain its myriad complexities to customers – were just some of the chal­lenges. All that began to change when Sayaka Watanabe became Europe’s first sake sommelier at Zuma, Rainer Becker’s Izakaya-style restaurant in Knights­bridge.

This was back in 2002. “In those days, it was difficult to get good sakes from Japan,” says Becker. “Back then, I remember that everyone wanted to drink hot sake, because that was all they knew. It took a lot of hand-holding to convince people to drink these premium sakes cool or at room temperature. But slowly, they began to gain acceptance.”

Another key development was the establishment of Isake in 2004, which was set up by two French sommeliers, Xavier Chapelou and Jean-Louis Naveilhan, together with Kumiko Ohta. “I was working on a sake promotion at Selfridges in 2001 with a group of eight sake brewers from all over Japan, covering all the different styles,” says Naveilhan, who is now as passionate about sake as he is about wine. “It was a huge success, especially with European customers, but when the promotion sold out it was impossible to reorder the sakes because nobody would import them into the UK. When we created Isake we were the only premium sake importers selling to restaurants and retail outlets.”

Since then, sake has secured a firmer foothold, particularly in London’s finest Japanese restaurants thanks to a growing number of sake sommeliers and consultants. “The key thing is explaining sake in a way that people understand and getting them to try it with an open mind,” says Naveilhan, who has since left Isake and now consults at Sumosan in Mayfair.

The approach appears to be working. Sales of sake at Sumosan have multiplied five-fold, thanks to Naveilhan’s efforts. As a result, its 130-strong list is moving £3,000-worth of premium sake every week. Over at Cocoon, sales have more than tripled since the arrival of the charming sake sommelier, Honami Matsumoto.

Meanwhile, just up the road at Marlon Abela’s Umu, where you will find one of the biggest and best lists, sommelier Kumiko Tamba sells as much sake as she does fine wine, often at similar prices. Particularly popular is the restaurant’s traditional kaiseki tasting menu, which matches every dish with a specially chosen sake.

However, it’s not just sake’s novelty value that has brought in new punters. According to Naveilhan, it is sake’s inherent complexity, infinite variety and extraordinary versatility that have made it such a hit. “The great thing about sake is its nuances, subtlety and aroma. In wine you have up to 300 aromas, but in sake you have more than twice that number.”

Sake’s other secret weapon is its savoury “umami” character, which food experts have hailed as “the fifth taste”. This is what underpins its remarkable food-matching abilities. “Because amino acids are more abundant in sake than wine, it goes brilliantly with foods that are also high in them, such as red meat, duck, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese,” says Naveilhan. “It isn’t just Japanese food that works well – French, Indian and Italian food is surprisingly good, too.”

This is not preaching to the converted or expat Japanese – sake also appeals to sophisticated Western diners trying it for the first time. “About 99 per cent of our clientele are non-Japanese,” says Watanabe.

It would be premature to claim that a culture of connoisseurship is growing up, but the interest has been converted into sales. For the past two years, sales in the UK have doubled and have now reached well over £2m.

Moreover, other indicators show that sake is being taken seriously by the drinks industry generally. The glass manufacturer Riedel has designed its first sake glass, and at this year’s International Wine Challenge entries into the recently established sake category were up by 20 per cent on last year. Meanwhile, in October, the first accredited sake sommelier course will take place at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London.

In many ways, wine has been the conduit to appreciating sake. Despite the obvious differences of grape and grain, there are parallels that help unlock sake’s many mysteries. Most obviously, concepts of terroir apply just as much to sake as they do to wine. There are also pre-eminent varieties of rice, just as there are noble cépages. And while vintage and aged koshu sakes are in a tiny minority, they are growing in number.

Diners and drinkers are now buying and consuming sake in much the same way as they do wine. Popular with Western palates are the drier and more floral ginjo or daiginjo sakes, which are closer to the more familiar flavour profile of certain white wines. “In contrast, the more traditional junmais with their yeasty, earthy aromas can be tougher to get a handle on,” says Tsunemi Simpson, restaurant manager at London’s Bincho Yakitori Soho.

The opportunities to try different sakes are increasing with venues such as Chisou and Cocoon holding regular tastings. Naveilhan is also in the process of setting up a wine and sake consultancy, and is sourcing rarer sakes for a growing number of private customers who will spend £60-plus on a bottle of dai­ginjo. But just like wine, the sky’s the limit when it comes to price. Selfridges and Harrods are selling a junmai daiginjo from the Naniwa sake brewery at £475 a pop.

Glowing endorsements from wine writers such as Rose have helped establish sake’s credentials. Having tasted hundreds in Japan and at the International Sake Challenges in Tokyo, he has become a fan. “With its history, culture and multiplicity of styles, sake is as complex and exciting as wine,” he told the Decanter audience at Sake No Hana. And most recently, the FT’s wine correspondent, Jancis Robinson, has also joined the sake party. Last autumn, she became an honorary associate member of the British Sake Association, which itself was only officially inaugurated last year.

One of the aims of the BSA is to educate new consumers to continue the tradition of sake-making in Japan, where sales have declined dramatically. “The number of kuras [sake breweries] has halved in the past 50 years,” says Shirley Booth, writer, filmmaker and president of the BSA.

Ironically, sake may be increasingly cool in the UK but in Japan it continues to languish, especially with younger drinkers who regard it as deeply unfashionable. According to Kenji Ichishima, consumption is now just a third of what it was 30 years ago. As a result, many kuras are pinning their hopes for its survival on key export markets, such as the US, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Europe.

In New York, ambitious sake programmes in mainstream French restaurants, such as Chanterelle and Daniel, have been established for more than a decade. But in the UK that innovation has yet to take root. Nevertheless, there are signs that it is beginning to bed down. Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons is thinking of adding sake to its list, while The Fat Duck and Club Gascon are already there. According to Booth, this is a major breakthrough. “When we see sake in The Fat Duck, as well as Harrods and Harvey Nichols, we know we are making real progress.”

Sake still has some way to go to meet Booth’s lofty ambition of “making it the drink of the future in the West”. Not least because it isn’t going to knock wine off its pre-eminent perch any time soon, if at all. However, what is clear is that premium sake is here to stay in the UK. “It’s no longer a fad or a fashion,” adds Harper. “It has real traction now. Moreover, as the sake bandwagon gathers pace it will only tease and encourage yet more diverse, boutique and interesting types of the drink from Japan’s family-owned kuras. For consumers, that can only be a very good thing indeed.” Next year, Harper’s own sake will also go on sale in the UK for the first time after 18 years of brewing.

And what about that Decanter dinner – how well did sake go down with its wine-loving readers? Well, judging by the euphoric reactions and comments from the assembled punters, this certainly won’t be the last Decanter sake dinner. In fact, it looks like being the first of many.

See also

Spirits