For goodness' Sake: While sushi and sashimi are now old friends on British menus, Japanese drinks have taken longer to catch on
Tastes and appetites are changing fast, but it'll be all rice on the night
Sunday 17 August 2014
Roll over, sushi: Britons are developing a new love affair with Japanese drink. Sake is an increasingly popular fixture on menus as bars and restaurants capitalise on the popularity of Japanese food and the drink's versatility in complementing other cuisines. New courses have even been launched to bring the nation's sommeliers up to speed.
Hakkasan Group's London restaurants say that sales have increased by 50 per cent in the past three years, with the sake lists at Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Hakkasan and the dim sum teahouse Yauatcha doubling over the same period and set to expand further. Sales at the wholesaler and retailer Amathus Drinks are up 35 per cent year on year.
A fermented alcoholic drink made from rice, often called "rice wine" despite the brewing process being closer to that of beer, sake comes in different form. It has a typical alcohol content of between 15 and 17 per cent, although it can be as much as 22 per cent. Importers to Britain are focusing on premium sake – the more the rice is polished during production, the more elegant and pure the drink.
Bibendum Wine, which sells to restaurants, bars and retailers, has introduced 15 sakes from four producers in Japan, three of which had not exported to the UK before. "Sushi and sashimi have already gone from being a niche menu item in Japanese restaurants to a mainstay of every high street in the country," said Gareth Groves, Bibendum's head of marketing. "There is no reason sake can't do exactly the same thing."
Oliver Hilton-Johnson, the director of the online business Tengu Sake, where sales have risen faster than expected since launching in May last year, said UK establishments were taking inspiration from the United States, particularly New York and California. He said that there the "versatile" drink had been paired with non-Japanese food and used in cocktails for a decade.
Britons are loving sake
Sake's rise has prompted the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which trains drinks professionals and enthusiastic amateurs, to launch its first sake courses in London in November after completing a final pilot earlier this month. The courses will also run in New York and Hong Kong.
However, one barrier to sake's success in the UK is its price, according to Natsuki Kikuya, a former sake sommelier who founded the PR and education agency Museum of Sake last year. "At the moment a bottle of cheaper sake could cost £20 in a shop," said Ms Kikuya, whose family's brewery, Akita Shurui Seizoh Co, started exporting sake to the UK last month."
The new-found popularity of sake in the West is good news for Japanese producers, who face decreasing domestic consumption as the country develops more Western tastes.
However, this fall has not deterred Arran Brewery on the Scottish Isle of Arran. Subject to planning permission, it will start constructing facilities next month to enable it to export sake to Japan.
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