Half a decade ago one could find Japanese Sake in London. Yes, of course one could. The ordering of such a beverage would usually elicit a three-word response from the server – those three little words that will likely turn any native Japanese to despair. The short question directed back to the curious prospective drinker would be simply ‘Hot or cold?’ But still worse for our by now parched prospective drinker is to hear the merry call of the server to the kitchen: ‘Someone wants that sake! You know, the bottle we opened at Chinese New Year? The one on top of the fridge?’
Well, in all honesty that is something of a whimsical scenario, but the sad truth wasn’t far from it. But those five or so years have passed and there is more serious interest in sake by an increasingly discerning public; and those in the Sake industry in Japan have noticed. Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, MAFF for short, has been supporting those in the UK who are diligently working to introduce this iconic drink to a wider audience. In New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong there is a habit of sake drinking, as Japanese restaurants have been common for decades, but the UK has been more of a challenge – good Japanese restaurants have only proliferated here relatively recently.
There are seminars on sake for restaurant and wine industry professionals in London from January 28th to January 31st. Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)-certified instructors will present the seminars which are hosted by Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing and a number of sake brewers. The instructors have received an intensive sake training in Japan to learn about the brewing process, ingredients, history, culture and tastings.
These short seminars introduce those attending to everything that makes sake so great and unique. The production encompasses millennia of brewing experience along with the most contemporary techniques. The Japanese are proud of their sake history but they are having to fight to maintain the sake-drinking tradition at home, with the allure of French wines and European beers. Perhaps the future of the sake industry lies with the vibrant overseas market.
The WSET will also launch a new sake course as part of its regular wine education programme later this year. These initiatives are supported by MAFF, which is currently working to increase the number of ‘sake evangelists’ who will promote the traditional Japanese drink abroad. It’s rather easy to become part of the increasing band of sake supporters. A taste of quality sake will be a revelation to many who attend the seminars or take the sake course.
Natsuki Kikuya, a former Head Sommelier at Roka restaurant, and founder of the Museum of Sake, was the co-presenter with Antony Moss. Natsuki was born into a sake brewing family and her grandfather was part of a cooperative of sake makers in the Akita Prefecture region of northern Honshu, the main island of Japan.
I asked Antony Moss (AIWS, MW, and Strategic Planning Director, WSET) about the target audience for this project. “Some people may come to us just for the sake qualification and nothing else, but I think there will be a substantial audience of those who have learnt about wines and spirits, hear the buzz and want to learn about sake; this is an obvious place to come for this qualification, too.
“As for the sake courses open to the public, initially we will timetable two during the academic year starting in August: one in September/October and one in February/March. These will be courses that are open to the general public, but marketed primarily at professionals. Similar to our wine events, they will include a ‘Sake 101’ with a line-up of contrasting samples, and going through the production process. We may have another that includes labelling terms, and how to read the labels. Having a regular sake course here, delivered by WSET, will help because it links to wine and spirits professionals and reminds them that sake is becoming more accessible.”
Yes, sake is reaching a wider audience and perhaps the days of the ‘bottle at the back’ are over. We can all enjoy a glass or cup of this delicious drink served at its best by better-educated sommeliers and servers. They will be more able to advise on which vintages to pair with dishes perhaps more diverse than the ubiquitous sushi. Sake is truly a Japanese citizen, but it’s now a world traveller. We hope to find sake on the drinks menus of non-Japanese restaurants, too.
Drinks review by Chrissie Walker © 2018