Premium sake has always been prized by the Japanese. Now Westerners are catching on, says Anthony Rose
Imagine you know next to nothing about wine and you’re told you’re going to taste hundreds of bottles with the country’s top experts.
You might have an inkling of the weakness of my knees as I was thrown in at the deep end to taste 280 different sakes alongside 15 Japanese master brewers at the first International Sake Challenge in Tokyo.
Ostensibly I was there as a judge in a Japanese wine competition but, along with the other international wine judges, I was roped in for the sake bungee jump as well. It was a baptism of fire and rice that was to kick off a blossoming affair with one of the world’s great traditional drinks.
Until that week, I had, like many I suspect, been agnostic about sake, and when I kicked off my shoes in a traditional sake bar in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, my lack of enthusiasm wasn’t helped by a menu that included blowfish ovaries and the warty, dried sea cucumber, whose gloopy, yellowy-green entrails tasted as unappetising as they sound.
Enter John Gauntner, one of the world’s sake authorities, who illuminated the finer points of a drink I had tried once or twice previously but without any great enthusiasm.
I soon learned that with its history, culture and multiplicity of styles, sake can be as complex in its own way as wine.
The more I learnt and, more to the point, tasted, the more I found sake growing on me. Its special subtleties were further illuminated when I visited the Matsumoto brewery in Kyoto.
As I tried to describe the taste, the owner, Yasuhiro Matsumoto, cut me short and said it’s not how long it lingers but how ethereal it is that counts.
He explained the secrets of the sake-manufacturing process: how pure water is essential for quality sake; how different rice varieties contribute to its character; and how the polishing of each grain by removing the outer fat and protein, and retaining the inner core of starch, is an essential part of sake’s quality.
The most important differentiating factor of all, he said, is the philosophy, ideology and
skill of the ‘brewer’ and his attention to detail.
Once a staple of the Japanese table, the consumption of sake, rather like table wine in Europe, has been in decline in Japan for two decades.
The reasons are various but, according to Kenji Ichishima, whose Niigata brewery I visited, sake has dropped from a quarter of the total beverage market in 1975 to 6% today.
The good news is that, outside Japan, it’s growing at more than 10% a year, mostly in the higher-grade categories.
‘Young people in Japan have grown up in a Coca-Cola culture and don’t drink sake much,’ says Ichishima. ‘It’s what their parents drink.
Premium sake is not cheap, so if they drink sake at all, they go for the hangover-inducing stuff. When we offer our premium sake at tastings, consumers really like it, and overseas customers don’t have the prejudices the young Japanese have.’
As evidence of the decline of sake in Japan, the Matsumoto family is one of the few to survive as brewers in Kyoto. When the company was established in 1791, there were 300 sake breweries in the city; by 2007, only three had survived.
This mirrors Japan as a whole, where the industry was also hit 20 years ago by the tax agency’s decision to stop issuing new brewing licences when existing master brewers retired.
There were an estimated 3,500 breweries in sake’s heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s; today, less than half that number.
One country’s decline, however, is another’s opportunity.
Burgeoning sake exports are a consequence of the belated realisation that survival depends on capturing new markets.
Although responsible for a small family operation, Kenji Ichishima himself is typical of the dynamic young breed of sake brewery owners. He speaks good English and travels the world, particularly to the US, where Japan’s total sake imports of 11.3 million litres are 10 times that of the UK.
Roughly a third of Japan’s exports go to the US, followed by Taiwan, Hong Kong and, more recently, China, where shipments doubled to 4.3 million litres in the four years to 2006.
The UK’s consumption is still small, but sales have more than doubled in the past two years and are now worth over £2 million annually.
The reasons for sake’s growing popularity in the US and Europe extend beyond the simple equation of declining demand in Japan and a shift from a traditional fish-and-rice diet to more meat and dairy.
Firstly, as its amino acids help neutralise fishy flavours, sake is an indispensible part of a menu with Japanese dishes such as sushi and sashimi, while it also goes well with tempura and tofu.
Japanese and non-Japanese sommeliers alike are spreading the word that sake is not just fashionable, but a delicious, traditional drink in its own right, and that message is spreading beyond the Japanese community and Japanese restaurants.
Much of this is premium sake – a far cry from the cheap, mass-market futsuu-shu which accounts for four in five bottles produced.
Ironically, the fact that premium sake is expensive and considered as much a luxury brand as a premier or grand cru wine (fine bottles sell in the UK for £20 to £50), works in its favour in style-conscious, monied circles. But there’s still a long way to go for sake in the West.
Up to a point, it’s been helped in the UK by traditional Japanese restaurants and the trendy likes of Alan Yau’s Sake No Hana and Marlon Abela’s Umu in London.
Premium sakes are available in a variety of styles from upmarket grocers such as Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, but they are expensive and hard for the uninitiated to get a handle on, thanks to high prices and labels in Japanese hieroglyphics.
Most supermarkets have a token sake, but it tends to be the basic, entry-level stuff that
hardly inspires newcomers to trade up.
Japanese sake brewers are as disparate a group as French wine growers but, equally, they have a common interest.
Continuing pressure on them to market to the West is one way, at least, to ensure that more of that liquid gem of Japanese culture comes our way.
Written by Anthony Rose