Save our sake: The sommeliers opening up sake for UK drinkers

15 March 2024 by

UK drinkers are yet to be properly introduced to the world of sake, but dedicated sommeliers can see its potential and are making it accessible to all

When Erika Haigh opened her London bar Moto in 2019, the majority of the customers who walked through the door were unfamiliar with Japan's national drink, sake.

"We're in Covent Garden, where there are a lot of international tourists and business people, but there was not much awareness around the beverage category," she says.

Sake, a rice-based fermented alcoholic drink, has origins all the way back to 500BC in China, but it has since become an important part of Japanese culture, having a role in events such as weddings and funerals, its own pouring etiquette and a multitude of drinking vessels that it can be served from.

It spans a range of styles, from Junmai (pure rice sake made with rice, water, yeast and koji), to Daiginjo (the highest grade of sake) and Tokubetsu (sake with a special designation, donating premium ingredients or production methods). And that's just for starters.

Sam Boulton, sake consultant and head of strategy and creative for sake agency Kokushu, says in the recently published The Art of Mixing Koji Cocktails that: "Sake is a multi-faceted category with more information than any one person could write in a book."

Post-pandemic, Japanese food and drink culture had a swell of interest in the UK. Sake shops opened (Sake Collective in east London) as well as swathes of omakase-style restaurants (Mayha, Maru, Roketsu and Michelin-starred Taku, all in London, to name a few). This year will also see the UK's first National Sake Week, from 15-21 April, with events for consumers and trade running in London and Birmingham, spearheaded by Boulton.

The top line is looking good too. According to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, Japanese sake exports reached a record high of ¥47.5b (£25m) in 2022, up 18% from 2021, and a 431% increase from 2012. This is despite the fact that sake's local market and industry is itself dwindling. And with UK-based brand Toku Saké announcing actor and producer Cate Blanchett as its new creative director, eyes are certainly fixed on the category.

So why then does sake still feel like an untapped drinks category in the UK restaurant space?

Teachable moments

There are numerous reasons as to why sake is still struggling to find its footing, and education among diners is the most obvious. "People don't like to feel like they don't know something, so it's all about breaking down the barriers of entry into sake," says Haigh, who is doing just this with Mai, her sake wholesale and events business.

"It's very much a PR and marketing issue, and the fact that the labels are in a completely different language doesn't help. Brewers can't ignore the fact that the export market is probably their saving grace and they need to cater to the outside world."

Beyond the labels there is also a misconception among consumers: "I think sake has always been demonised," says Stefano Pasqual, head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay's Lucky Cat Mayfair. "Everyone thinks it's a spirit, like vodka." In fact, sake's alcohol by volume range is more around the 13%-17% mark, and it is consumed more like wine and often with food.

Educating consumers is no small task, but operators are keen to encourage their guests to learn on-premise. At Lucky Cat, sake masterclasses take guests through a history of sake as well as the restaurant's sake list and a range of sakes are paired with dishes. At the Aubrey, part of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London hotel, head sommelier Maxim Kassir holds monthly sake supperclubs, partnering with breweries for sake-pairing dinners and cocktails by bar director Pietro Rizzo.

How sake is presented on menus is also difficult because sakes differ more from brewery to brewery than from region to region, and there is a host of terminology.

Haigh is still in the process of working out the sweet spot: "I'm still very much playing around with authenticity versus people needing to be able to understand the menu," she says. The menu currently divides sake by ‘aromatic', ‘rich', ‘hot', ‘sake flights' and ‘speciality sake', all offered at 60ml and detailing the name of the brewery, province and tasting notes.

Kassir breaks the menu down by flavour profiles, such as ‘vibrant and refreshing', ‘mellow and aromatic' or ‘rich and umami'.

"It's really hard to group sake according to region," he says. "It's also hard to understand whether to group it by type, as some are sweet and some are umami-style – it doesn't really tell the guest much." Except that's just what Vincenzo Arnese, wine director at Mauro Colagreco at Raffles London at the OWO does: "Wine is divided by region, but that is not representative for sake, so what we try to do is explain the style and create an understanding of the region with our guests."

They also give their sakes English names, such as Gold Blossom, Milky Way or Nine-Headed Dragon. "We think people are put off by the name in Japanese sometimes – some people will be too intimidated to order it." The same approach is taken at Lucky Cat Mayfair, where guests receive information on each style, on how it might be served along with its appearance and flavour.

For the sake of flavour

As a diverse and versatile drinks category, sake is well-suited to food pairings, including non-Japanese cuisine. Arnese says: "The goal is to promote sake at a wine-pairing level. Some people are open-minded and some are put off, but that's why I think it is important to explain it as a wine pairing, so they can see its potential."

It's not always easy: "We have an earthy Jerusalem artichoke dish and we thought a sake will match its umami character, but the dish was so creamy that we lost the flavour of the sake – not everything works." A citrus ravioli dish, however, worked wonders with Tamagawa ‘Time Machine' Junmai Kimoto.

The team also experimented with glassware and service style: "We were wondering whether to follow a more Japanese tradition [of serving it in ceramic cups] or be more continental. Most of the time we serve it in a glass as if it was wine. We did try to experiment with other vessels to see what it felt and tasted like, but when it is a pairing we want to concentrate the flavour and see the different shades of the sake, so we prefer it in a wine glass."

Arnese is also careful not to try and replicate wine styles with sake, but to pair dishes more closely based on flavour. "One mistake sommeliers make is to try and recreate a wine pairing but with sake – but you can discover new types of flavour."

Pasqual is also keen to impress sake's versatility outside of Japanese cuisine. "Sake pairs very well with Indian food, such as fenugreek-based curries or where the level of spice goes with the texture of the sake." However, he's wary of sake with more acidity-leaning cuisines, such as Italian, due to sake's relative lack of acidity.

While there is plenty to work on in getting sake's positioning in UK restaurants right, there are also plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of sake. Kassir is seeing more interest from wine merchants looking to become part of the sake supply chain for UK restaurants, while Pasqual is excited about the rise in good-quality sparkling sakes.

Haigh agrees: "There's an element of innovation in the world of sparkling sake. It's a huge category that's starting to really take off and actually become good… it's really complex and really delicious."

Drinks portfolios are also bringing more sake into the UK market, with distributor DrinksOne building a dedicated sake portfolio to feed the demand it believes is out there. Demand is something Haigh is also addressing: "For the supply side, there needs to be a demand, and that's my project this year – pushing the product in a way that's going to be about the consumer."

For operators, she is also keen to impress how embracing sake is a step towards keeping a category alive: "It's a dying industry. These are artisans whose skills have been passed down from generation to generation, and now they're going under, so you're actually helping them."

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