At the London Wine Fair earlier this year, one clutch of stands in the far corner of Olympia attracted particular attention from the assembled sommeliers, wine buyers and critics. These stands weren’t showcasing wine, though. They were showcasing sake.
Some 2,000 years after it was first brewed, sake is now experiencing a surge of interest in the UK. Spurred on by a boom in Japanese cuisine, sales of sake are growing at an estimated 10 per cent a year (at the same time as sales within Japan are falling). Selfridges – which has more than 55 varieties and a sake sommelier – saw sales grow 13 per cent in 2016, while Harvey Nichols recently upped its selection of fine sake from four lines to 14. And London’s shiny new Japan Centre boasts a dedicated sake shop and tasting room stocked with one of the biggest sake selections in the UK. Even high-street supermarket Aldi recently added a sake to its shelves for the first time. This was also the year that the UK got its first sake brewery: Kanpai, in Peckham. By the end of 2017, the £9m Dojima Sake Brewery in Cambridgeshire will also be in production. And sake is no longer solely the preserve of Japanese fine dining, either: Lyle’s, Corrigan’s Mayfair, L’Enclume, The Clove Club and The Fat Duck are just some of the Michelin-starred establishments that now feature sake on their wine lists. It’s not bad going for a drink that is still largely a mystery to even the most well‑versed epicureans.
In January, I spent a week working at the Akashi Sake Brewery in Akashi, a fishing port about a 90-minute drive southwest of Kyoto. Not much bigger than a barn, and staffed by a team of two, this micro-brewery gave me access rarely granted to an outsider (much less a woman). Their greatest concession was to admit me to the inner sanctum of sake making: the koji muro. Hot as a sauna, spotless as an operating theatre, this windowless room is where the rice undergoes its transformation in the presence of koji-kin, the spore that converts steamed rice to koji. It’s where the personality of the sake is born.
Standing at the head of a long cypress table heaped with steamed rice, I was ceremonially handed a small tin of this feather-light dust, which we cast, one by one, over the grains before us. Armed with a long white gauze, we then silently swaddled the koji into an eerily corporeal mass, before leaving it in the warmth to sleep. Over the days that followed I became intimately acquainted with every change in the grains – their temperature, their texture, their scent. At the beginning the koji muro smelled of rice pudding and cypress. By the end it had evolved into roast chestnuts, with a hint of squash courts. Handling the rice was exacting work. However much I tried to carve a perfect trench in the grains with my hand, it was never quite straight enough for my long-suffering toji (master brewer). “Pay attention to the details,” he chided, picking a single grain of rice from the net sack I had just emptied.
Sake classifications are complicated – but navigating them is easier if you know a little about how it is made. All sake is brewed in a process similar to that of beer. Its strength is a bit above that of a table wine. It is divided into two camps: sake that is made with the addition of a little alcohol (which tends to amplify the flavour, but doesn’t increase the strength) and sake that is made without (which is typically more delicate). Within these two camps, sakes are also stratified according to how highly polished the rice is. A robust honjozo might be made with grains polished to 70 per cent of their original size, but there are a few ultra-premiums that are made with rice that’s polished to less than 10 per cent.
Junmai daiginjo sakes, which are made without the addition of alcohol, and with a high degree of polishing, tend to have the most refined, fruity/floral profiles, and as a result they often fetch the highest prices. But aficionados can also get very misty-eyed about a really good honjozo, which will often speak more of the rice character. “If you’re choosing sake for the first time, any style with ‘ginjo’ in the name is a good place to start,” says Christine Parkinson, International Wine Challenge sake judge and group head of wine for the Sake no Hana restaurant and Hakkasan Group. While grape varietal and region play a big part in wine, sake isn’t greatly influenced by terroir, says Parkinson. “Region and rice variety do make a difference, but it’s subtle. House style usually owes more to the brewer.” When it comes to price, “good sake usually costs a bit more than wine. I’d say: expect to pay Chablis prices. For anything ‘ginjo’ expect to pay the price of a premier cru.” Sake’s flavour spectrum is huge. It can be fresh and fruity, with melon, pear and blossom characters, or savoury as a cup of miso soup. The best ones often have an appetising touch of saltiness. “Thanks to its high umami content, sake is also naturally flavour-enhancing,” says Parkinson. “It’s super food-friendly.”
One sommelier who’s championed sake and food matching beyond the realms of Japanese cuisine is Fred Marti at the Typing Room in Bethnal Green. For the past two years, he’s been peppering Lee Westcott’s intricate, modern European tasting menus with artisanal sakes of all styles. A favourite match of Marti’s is the restaurant’s signature bread course of IPA sourdough and Marmite butter, paired with the spicy Kinmon Akita X3 Junmai (£8 per 75ml). “It’s like an umami bomb!” he grins. Further down the menu, duck is paired with a koshu (or “aged”) sake that has a nuttiness almost like sherry. A dessert of yoghurt cheesecake comes with a delicious cocktail of yuzu-infused sake and champagne (£12). Proof that sake can rival serious grand crus comes in the form of Zenshichi Ryussei Kimoto, Hiroshima 2003 (£395 for 720ml), a vintage junmai daiginjo of extraordinary grace and power. “This one takes me to places like Montrachet,” says Marti, nose buried deep in his burgundy glass.
The advent of sparkling sake has convinced many sceptics to give sake a second go. Easy-drinking and sometimes rather sweet, this style – which can be made using the champagne method or plain old carbonation – is often snubbed by serious sake lovers, but quality is now improving. The IWC Trophy-winning John sparkling sake (£53 for 75cl) by Keigetsu, a 140-year-old brewery in the mountainous Kochi prefecture, has a touch of the champagne about it, with a yeasty aroma and a snappy, dry finish. In between, it’s undeniably sake, though, with fragrant notes of peach, melon, apple and pear.
Sake has not been immune to trends in natural wine – those that are nama (unpasteurised), nigori (unfiltered) and genshu (natural: ie, higher, strength) certainly have more cachet in some circles. My own experience is that unpasteurised namazakes do often have the edge, flavour-wise. One of the best “namas” I’ve tasted is the Snow Blossom Daiginjo Muroka Nama Genshu (£32 for 720ml) by Yamatogawa Shuzo, a prestigious craft brewery that’s been at it since 1790. Highly textured, with fruity red apple skin and a salty, caperberry tang, this full-bodied sake is a real one to savour. Snow Blossom is on the impressive sake list at the new Dinings in Knightsbridge, priced at £84 per bottle, but it’s also available at a fraction of the price from Tengu Sake, suppliers to top trade including Roka, Bao, Hedonism and Umu Mayfair.
Winners of IWC Sake Specialist Merchant two years on the trot, Tengu Sake has made it its mission to strip away the jargon (and the Japanese) that often makes sake so indecipherable. Its website is a mine of information, and all its sakes come with an English translation of the label on the back. The company also runs tastings and organises tailormade brewery tours of Japan. A nice capsule collection from the Tengu portfolio is available at Anzu, a relaxed Japanese restaurant in St James’s Market, just off Piccadilly. Over a plate of rock oysters and ikura (salmon roe, £3 each) I fell for Misty Mountain (£8.75 per 100ml), a nigori sake with a buoyant sweet-and-sour fruitiness and a slightly chalky texture. Anzu also does a mean seaweed sake and vodka martini (£8.50) and has an excellent Japanese whisky selection to boot, from £5.50 per 25ml.
Aficionados wanting to tick some more rarefied sakes off their list should head to Roka Mayfair, where the menu includes a range of exclusive, small-batch seasonal sakes and the renowned Tatenokawa 8 “ultra” junmai daiginjo (£59 per 100ml), which is made from rice polished to just eight per cent. Sake of this calibre is best savoured at room temperature or slightly chilled – it’s the more robust styles, like honjozo, that tend to lend themselves best to being drunk warm or hot. “If you want to get the most out of a really aromatic sake, then use a wine glass,” says Christine Parkinson. “But there’s great pleasure to be had from the ritual of using traditional ceramic choko cups or wooden masu too.”
The new Nobu Hotel in Shoreditch serves Hokusetsu sakes (from £10 per 100ml glass) from Sado Island with all sorts of glassware, cups, silver pots and tokkuri (ceramic flasks), depending on what you’ve ordered. An exquisite selection of sake ware is also available from House of Sake. The website’s curator, Honami Matsumoto, often runs sake masterclasses at Hedonism Wines, frequently catered by top chefs.
Sake has found favour with the fine wine world, and it’s seducing the club scene too. Enter.Sake is a good-looking “boutique sake collection” from super-DJ Richie Hawtin that crops up on wine lists from Ibiza to Brooklyn. Piper-Heidsieck Champagne’s cellar master Régis Camus was also drafted in to create Heavensake (£45 for 720ml), a new junmai ginjo for fashionistas that comes in an aquamarine glass bottle with serious kerb appeal.
Last month, Luca Longobardi and Chris Denney of the acclaimed 108 Garage restaurant in Notting Hill put the finishing touches to their new private membership venture, Southam Street, a three-floor affair just off Golborne Road complete with a robata grill, champagne bar and sake bar.
Sake has a flash side. But in the main it’s still a drink wrapped in obscurity. If you like ferreting out grower champagnes, or armagnacs, obscure burgundies or craft ales, then it might just be the drink for you. What’s more, you now have full permission to enjoy it with Marmite.