I was discussing the joy of Japanese sake with a couple of wine merchants when one of them turned to me and said disparagingly "but it's made of rice, not grapes", as if that somehow made it a lesser drink.
Sake is a product with its own pedigree and culture. While it has features in common with wine, it needs to be thought of as different from wine for its acquired taste to be enjoyed. With only a fifth of wine's acidity, it has a richness and smoothness of texture that makes it uniquely compatible with food. It can be drunk chilled as well as at room temperature or warm.
A quarter of all sake is premium sake, and premium sake is graded according to the amount the rice grain is reduced, or 'polished'. There are 1,200 active sake breweries in Japan's 46 prefectures. Each brewery makes sake according to the local climate, the type of rice, quality of water – and the owner's objectives.
While consumption in Japan has been in decline for years, there is a welcome revival today based on premium styles, which include cloudy sake, sparkling sake, aged sake, single estate sake, unpasteurised sake and the traditional styles known as yamahai and kimoto championed by Philip Harper, Japan's only English sake master brewer.
Does the buzz mean that sake is on the verge of a breakthrough into the mainstream in the UK? I think so. Although price is an issue (it's inevitably more expensive here than Japan), you'll find fair value in sakes such as Akashi Tai's Daiginjo and Dewazakura's Izumi Judan at Hedonism Wine, while merchants such as Berry Bros, Harvey Nichols and Lea and Sandeman are also starting to sing its virtues.
Reporting that sake sales are running at five per cent of all drink sales, the Hakkasan Group is offering a new consumer course at Sake No Hana; it's run by its buyer Christine Parkinson and yours truly at the bargain price of £60 for a morning with eight sakes to taste, a guide, goodie bag and an excellent lunch (contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
Just three months ago, Oliver Hilton-Johnson became the first Englishman to set up a sake-importing business in the UK. Tengusake.com is a brilliantly lucid site which not only explains sake in simple terms, but also has a style guide to help you sort out what's for you, with some smart six-bottle sake selections at fair prices. "There's a definite groundswell of interest in sake," says Hilton-Johnson, who didn't much like sake when he first tried it in Japan, but is now so hooked that he gave up the day job to bring it to the UK.Reuse content