An unfortunate introduction to “napalm hot” sake while living in Japan almost put Brit Oliver Hilton-Johnson off the beverage entirely, but a sip of the ice-cold version at a London restaurant some years later had him hooked. “The fact that you could have it both warm and cold, and the radical difference in flavour, texture and feel that resulted from different temperatures, was a revelation that spurred me to learn more,” he explains. “I educated myself about a vast variety of sakes – there are well over 15,000 in Japan – and their tastes, styles and, of course, the maker’s dedication that goes into each bottle.”
This fascination with rice wine has led to Tengu Sake, an e-shop devoted to “intelligently selected premium sake that people can easily understand and engage with”, from five of the best breweries in Japan. The site provides a wealth of information about the drink – for example, there are rarely vintages for sake as it’s meant to be drunk within a year of bottling – and, unlike most wines, there are no sulphites involved in its preservation (a bonus for hangover sufferers). A nifty tool also allows shoppers to select bottles by criteria such as light, rich, fragrant, dry, with food or for enjoyment “by itself”.
Knowledgeable sake connoisseurs and lay-Itsu-eaters alike will enjoy the top-flight Ichiban Selection (£284 for six bottles) that brings together the best brews, including a Special White label from Yoshida (individually priced at £45 for 720ml) that is sweet and complex, with an all-star Golden Amber from Hayashi Honten (individually priced at £65 for 720ml) that is richer and more complex. An Easy Drinking Selection features five sakes (£125) that pair well with spicy foods. Single bottles with soothing names such as Heavenly Brew (£26 for 720ml), Waning Moon (£22.50 for 720ml) and Autumn Leaves (£20.50 for 720ml) with hints of fresh apple, each feature a biography for the sake and its maker, as well as complementary foods (Waning Moon, for example, works well with umami-laden dishes such as strong Parmesan cheese, tomato-based sauces and roasted or stewed foods).
Tengu Sake is clearly a labour of love and Hilton-Johnson has carefully curated from the light and fruity to extremely bold offerings. “I am lucky to have a very close and personal relationship with the breweries I work with. I like to know about their families, their work ethic and their history because it helps me understand and appreciate their sake – and I can pass their passion along to my customers. The five breweries we work with have unique characteristics and stories to tell, and they all produce very different sake from one another. I hope this site serves as a quality-assurance mark for their varied collection of brews.” A toast to that.