The sound of the temple bell reverberates in the distance. It’s midnight in Japan, and the Shinto shrine is full of people celebrating the new year. Some are drinking amazake – a cloudy unfiltered (and non-alcoholic) type of sake drunk warm; others proffer cups to be filled with cold clear sake, served from gold kettles by ceremonially-clad priests. And the gods get their share – offerings of large straw-covered sake barrels called komokaburi are placed in front of the shrine. Only sake is good enough to keep the gods happy – in the hope they'll bestow health and happiness in the coming year.
In Japan sake is more than just another drink. Made from rice, which sits at the very heart of the Japanese psyche, sake is an essential part of religious ritual and celebration. When a couple marries they seal their bond by exchanging cups of sake; when a new building is consecrated, a contract sealed, or a sumo fight fought, sake is drunk. However, in spite of this strong traditional and cultural significance, or more likely because of it, sales of sake in Japan have been steadily declining, so that the number of breweries (or kura) has halved in the last fifty years. Many of the remaining 1400 or so breweries are small family-owned business, going back generations, and it is in these kura that the best handcrafted premium sakes are to be found.
Although exports still only account for less than 10% of production, the most enlightened of the brewers have started to look overseas to new markets, which are not hidebound by tradition. Mr. Izumihiko Masuda, of Tsukinokatsura Brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto, told me at a recent tasting that he hopes to increase their export sales from its current 10% of production to around a third of production; with a third for the domestic restaurant market, and a third reserved for the Kyoto area itself. (Mr. Masuda, a tall and handsome man also told me that he and his father have been known to drink nine litres of sake between them in one session! Masuda senior is still here at 88, so perhaps the health-giving properties of sake deserve further exploration.)
Sake in the UK
Here in the UK, according to Chris Hughes of Tazaki Foods, one of the main distributors of sake, sales have doubled in the last two years. More and more Japanese restaurants are offering a comprehensive sake list, all serving sake chilled, a million miles away from the warmed tokkuri of headache-inducing low-grade sake which used to be the norm.
There is a growing group of sake aficionados, such as the Independent’s wine writer, Anthony Rose, and Sam Harrop and Rie Yoshitake of the Sake Samurai, an organisation created by the Junior Council of the Japan Sake Brewers Association, who are helping to spread the word. It was Sam who introduced a sake category into the International Wine Challenge, where the number of entries has rocketed from a handful three years ago when it started, to over two hundred this year. The small independent distributor iSake was in the forefront of the sake revolution, and after five years has now established a Sake Sommelier Association, to help educate the trade. The British Sake Association was also established earlier this year, its aims to promote the joys of drinking Premium Japanese Sake to the British consumer, through a combination of exclusive, informative and lively social events, educational seminars and tastings, and a regular newsletter.
The best Japanese restaurants now have a dedicated sake sommelier – a concept which itself is only a couple of decades old. Sayaka Watanabe, of Zuma, was one of the first in London, and she has been followed by Kumiko Tamba at Umu and Honami Matsumoto at Cocoon (women all). Jean Louis Naveilhan at Sumosan, Stuart Hudson at Sake no Hana. and Zacchari Touchane at Bincho are all keen sake enthusiasts, and happy to share their knowledge. Wakana Omija, a bubbly fluent English speaker represents Akashi Tai in the UK and conducts tastings in and around London. David Wrigley – appointed ‘sake samurai’- has held a Sake Seminar for the trade annually for the last five years at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust headquarters in Bermondsey.
The recently published The Book of Sake: a Connoisseurs Guide (Kodansha) by Philip Harper beautifully unlocks the mysteries of the sake world to non-Japanese. Philip is the only foreigner ever to have attained the rank of toji,or master brewer, and although he spends the entire winter in Japan brewing sake, he also conducts tutored tastings and lectures in conjunction with the British Sake Association in the summer.
Where to Drink Sake in London
Yakitori in authentic izakaya-style, with a newly-opened sake bar. An affordable entry point, with 22 sakes on offer Bincho offers a flight of three sakes, a Ginjo, a Junmai and a Nigori for £8, and the charming Zacchari will talk you through them.
16 Old Comprton Street ,London W1D 4TL 020 7287 9111
Bincho Yakitori at 2f Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street,London SE1 9PH
The same charming staff, plus glorious views of the Thames and St Paul’s, whilst you nibble your yakitori and sip your sake amongst a jolly City crowd.
Saki Bar and Food Emporium Here you can try 38 different sakes in the cosy downstairs bar, and then buy a bottle (of any one of them) in the chic designer shop area on the ground floor. Head Bar Tender Yasuhiro Kodama, or Restaurant manager Tony Zesiro, who has 25 years of experience in Japanese restaurants, will talk you through the different sakes. 4 West Smithfield, London EC1A 9JX (020) 7489 7033
So has a smaller range of 15 sakes, but offers a useful introductory flight of four ,
(Miyanoyuki Junmai, Tosatsuru Ginjo, Tsukinotasura Nigori and Tamanohikari DaiGinjo) for £8.50
3-4 Warwick Street,London W1B 5LS (020) 7292 0767
Lunchtime and early evening bento shop, who host occasional sake tastings
4 Canvey Street, London, SE1 9AN T. 020 7928 2228
Moshi Moshi 24 Upper Level, Broadgate, London EC2M 7QH 020 7247 3227
Soseki newly opened by the woman who started Moshi Moshi Sushi, Caroline Bennett, offers six sake, from a reasonable £18 to £45 per bottle, all served in an elegant Taisho-period style setting. Bar manager Shinn Araki recommends the Manotsuru Genshu (undiluted) from Niigata (£25 per 500ml bottle)
30 St Mary Axe 1F, London EC3A 5AA T: 020 7621 9211
Sumosan, 26 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4HY 020 7495 5999
Roka, younger sister of Zuma,whose same sake sommelier team are on hand in the dimly lit downstairs Shochu Lounge.
37, Charlotte Street, London W1T 1RR 020 7927 8254
And at the pricier end of things:
Cocoon Restaurant, and a cocktail Bar (open until 3am at weekends) offers a selection of 19 sakes, with a very helpful menu and a dedicated sommelier team to help unravel their mysteries. Prices range from £14 for a 150 ml glass to £100 for a 72cl bottle.
65 Regent street, London W1B 4EA 020 7494 7600
Zuma Rainer Becker’s flagship restaurant is till one of the best places to try Premium sake. The achingly fashionable glass-clad bar sells over 70 different sakes. Top sommelier Sayaka Watanabe, or one of her assistants, Satomi and Tomo, are on hand to guide you through them.
Umu The largest and most exclusive selection – 160 bottles, to accompany the Michelin-starred Kyoto Cuisine 14-16 Bruton Place, London W1J 6LX 020 7499 8881
Sake no Hana 23 St. James Street, London SW1A 1HA 020 7925 8988
Where to buy sake in London
Japan Centre 212 Piccadilly London W1J 9HX 020 7255 8270
Tazaki Foods internet shopping
Clearspring Organic Foods for two types of organic sake (the Tamaki Yamahai fromAkita, at around £25 a bottle is recommended)
Selfridges, Partridges and Harvey Nichols each sell a selected range of Premium Sake.
Membership of The British Sake Association is open to all who are interested in this fascinating drink. For further information, and to learn more about Special Offers and Discounts call 020 7385 1820.
Shirley Booth is the President and Founder, British Sake Association and a writer and director. In 2006 Shirley was the first UK recipient of the newly-created Japanese Agriculture Minister’s Award For Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food, which she has been involved in for over two decades. Apart from her role as President of the British Sake Association Shirley helps to promote sake by organising sake-themed events and tastings for Corporate clients, and writing about it. Shirley also uses her film-making skills to produce DVDs on sake-making, and other food and drink related subjects, both for broadcast and corporate clients.