A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Fine sake – the tasting notes.
For anyone with any knowledge of wine, sake is a bit scary. The production process with its many rice strains, different polishes thereof, variation in water quality, not to mention time and temperature, is much more complex than winemaking. At its best the product itself is even more fragile – care is needed when transporting it and most sakes should be drunk within a year of being released. The history of many sake breweries puts even the most venerable wine dynasties in the shade. At the only sake brewery I have ever visited, in Nara in 2000, my hosts were 47th- and 48th-generation sake brewers.
I write, therefore, as a sake ingénue, in awe of those with genuine sake expertise, but with the thrill of a recent tasting of 21 premium sakes still coursing through my veins. I was truly uplifted by the subtle variations in these cool, ineffably pure, limpid ferments, averaging around 16% alcohol – even if most labels were completely impenetrable.
Two nights previously, by complete coincidence, I met musician Richie Hawtin, described by the New York Times as ‘the face of a faceless genre. One of the electronic dance world’s intellectual forces.’ Over dinner at his favourite London Japanese restaurant Umu, we tasted the sakes he is in the process of exporting to Europe and the US through his ENTER.Sake project. This Canadian gamin in his forties is clearly completely besotted by Japan’s national drink, having been introduced to it when he first went there to perform 25 years ago. He couldn’t resist ordering some additional quirky sakes from Umu’s list, including one made by Philip Harper, the Brit who is the only non-Japanese accredited sake brewer in Japan, to compare with his own. Looking round the restaurant, he declared disapprovingly, ‘they really should ban the wine list in places like this'. (And that was without spotting the owner Marlon Abela sipping red wine at the sushi counter.)
As our picture shows, Hawtin, aka Plastikman, was decorated by the Sake Samurai Association of Japan in 2014 for his efforts over the last five years to convert foreigners to the pleasures of sake. Inspired by the parallels between the purity of his musical vision and the purity of sake and many aspects of Japanese culture, he is putting his own minimalist, English-language label on six sakes from several different breweries, shipping them to a distribution point in Burgundy, and thence to a wide range of European restaurants and retailers.
Like many of those now engaged in spreading the gospel of sake outside Japan, he has been inspired by the new wave of younger sake brewers – not unlike the new wave of younger wine producers – who are returning to artisan methods.
The total sake market in Japan has been gently contracting but premium sakes are thriving, quality has increased overall, and more and more people, it seems, want the world to know about it.
Adrienne Saunier-Blache is also based in Burgundy and started up Madame Sake to honour her Japanese mother – and her great grandfather who founded the French wine retailer Nicolas. Thanks to her and many others, there are few three-star chefs who have not been targeted by a sake seller.
Professor Nobuyuki Sato is an international economist currently seconded to Chatham House, London. It was he who organised the inspiring premium sake tasting for members of the 67 Pall Mall wine club recently. As he put it, nodding at the curious tasters, the Japanese take sake for granted but top-quality examples really should be of interest to lovers of fine wine. ‘There was already lots of sake in London, but only some of it is excellent – so this sort of education is needed', he said firmly.
One UK wine importer has started to take sake seriously. Ex sommelier Joshua Butler of Bibendum PLB turned to sake only three years ago and acknowledges to their restaurant customers that ‘traditionally sake entered the UK in a mixed container of other Japanese dry goods’ but promises them that ‘now you can have sake on a list without needing to order nori’. Star of the show at 67 Pall Mall was his Niizawa Zankyo Super 7 sake – on the restaurant wine list up the road at Novikov at £995 a bottle – made from rice (somehow) polished for a total of 350 hours so that only 7% of it remains.
In the last 10 years sake exports have doubled in volume and tripled in value but still represent only 3% of all that is produced in the 1,000-odd breweries all over Japan, some of them exceptionally small and traditional. Although Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong are significant importers, it is in the US with its host of Japanese and Japanese-influenced restaurants that sake has really taken off.
Last month The Wine Advocate, the publication sold by American wine guru Robert Parker to a Singaporean in 2012, published its first sake report this century, based on the palate of a Chinese Master of Wine student resident in Shanghai, awarding 78 sakes more than 90 points out of 100. This resulted in some short-term price inflation on a brand new website, Taste of Sake, that was taken out of service when it became clear that it was being operated by an associate of the wine importer who is The Wine Advocate’s representative in Japan.
Kenichi Ohashi is in the unique position of being both a Master of Wine and a Master of Sake, having qualified in 2009 as one of only about 50 officially accredited assessors of sake in Japan. He points out that in Japan there is a big gulf between sake specialist retailers and wine merchants (many of the former have never heard of The Wine Advocate), and that the officially prescribed parameters for judging sake are very different from those involved in judging wine. Persistence of flavour is a virtue in wine but not necessarily in sake, for instance.
This must make the sake courses launched last year by the global wine education leader the Wine & Spirit Education Trust quite challenging to teach, but it is a sign of sake’s growing acceptance outside Japan that they exist. Richie Hawtin was in London doing Level 3, already tackled by 495 students around the world.
The International Wine Challenge introduced sake 10 years ago with just 200 entries in this giant annual judging held in London. This year Kenichi Ohashi and his fellow judges tasted 1,283 sakes, including a few brewed in the US, Norway and Canada. Sake has truly left its homeland.
SOME SAKES THIS WINE LOVER PARTICULARLY LOVED
Asahi Shuzo, Dassai 23
ENTER.Sake, Fujioka Shuzo Sookuu
ENTER.Sake, Matsumoto Shuhari
Heiwa Shuzo, Kid
Niizawa, Zankyo Super 7