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Sake set to finally make its mark in the UK in 2015

Published:  07 January, 2015



After a breakthrough year in 2014 which saw sake appear in some of the hottest wine lists in the country, including the Chiltern Firehouse, sake experts believe the UK is set to follow the US and Japan and become far more widely distributed across both the on and off-trades.

After a breakthrough year in 2014 which saw sake appear in some of the hottest wine lists in the country, including the Chiltern Firehouse, sake experts believe the UK is set to follow the US and Japan and become far more widely distributed across both the on and off-trades.'s sake corresspondent, Anna Greenhous, talks to leading sake consultants and players to see what types of sake we can expect to sell the most in the coming year.

The United Kingdom: The Emerging Market

Barry McCaughley, sake consultant, who is helping restaurants, drinks distributors and sake breweries find customers and position their products in the UK. Currently working with Chotto Matte restaurant, Hallgarten Druitt Novum wines, Kimura and Fukimitsuya breweries: 

"2014 has been a breakthrough year for sake in the UK It was the year when sake came away from Japanese restaurant wine lists and into restaurants of all types, such as Nuno Mendez's Chiltern Firehouse, The Loft and Gavroche. Things are starting to change, it would have been unheard of before, even the hottest restaurant in London is convinced.

"The wine trade has been the most difficult group of people to introduce sake to. They know sake is a technical subject and that you can't blag it. Sake is the final frontier. But that technical knowledge is not important to the consumer. Tasting is what's key and what drives the consumer is taste. The British public may not know a lot about sake, but they speak honestly and accurately about their own taste. It's got layers of flavour, and a long tradition. It's really taken off.

"The major drinks and wine distributors are looking to do sake which is a fundamental change from the past when Japanese food companies like SKY, and the Japan Centre were the main distributers.

"In the future, I expect sake to be on wine lists of all types, not because it's trendy but because it's good with food and a great drink. Drinks distributors, such as Bibendum and Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, are amongst those who've been adding sake to their lists. In 2015, this growth will continue and in general, understanding of sake styles and where they are from will increase.

"In 2015, sweet styles of sake which have been popular will get more authentic. Sparkling sake acts as an introduction to sake. It's easy to sell fizzy, sweet sake, it ticks so many boxes for the average drinker. But with Champagne it's not the sweet styles that rule, but dry, minerally styles.

"Sake cocktails and cold-pressed infusions with sake will become more popular. Sake picks up natural fruit flavours such as honeydew melon and starfruit very well. Natural sugars and fruit, rather than artificial flavours or sugars which cloy, work best with sake.  Sake and gin is a very good combination-which works as an infusion too."

Sarah Wedgbury, sake specialist at sake distributor JFC.

"There seems to be less of a focus on premium ginjo and daiginjo sake than there used to be.  Sake is slowly moving into the mainstream rather than being drunk solely by the upper echelons of society who have driven the demand for sake to date in the UK.  This is perhaps due to an increased awareness of sake and different sake styles both in the general public and waiting staff.  With an increased number of wine sommeliers gaining a good knowledge of sake this appears to be helping guide customers in their choices meaning that customers are happier to discuss sake choices rather than relying on knowing the term "Ginjo" or "Daiginjo" and simply ordering by grade. 

"The International Wine Challenge has also led the way with the introduction of futsushu and sparkling sakes into the competition this year, making it more accessible to the general population, rather than only having the premium grades being sold at somewhat prohibitive prices.

"Sparkling sake sales are increasing, in particular Choryo Sawasawa and Ozeki Hana Awaka. Sparkling sakes, like Mio (a light, sweet/sour, low-alcohol, easy-drinking style of sparkling sake) are becoming an introduction into sake, in much the same way as Gallo and Echo Falls wines are often a first introduction to wine. 

"Shindo Shuzo, a brewery in Yamagata, seems to be particularly popular in the UK.  Their Honjozu Kouka won a trophy at the IWC a few years ago and continues to sell well. Gassan no Yuki Junmai Ginjo sales have also increased greatly this year too. 

"A sake in a can, a nama genshu honjozo called  Funaguchi from Kikusui brewery really took off this year at Hyper Japan, where it sold out. It's delicious and has continued to sell well.

"In 2015, I think (unpasteurised) namazake styles will take off, as they seem to be enjoyed by a wider range of people than standard sake.  Whether 100% nama, a nama chozo or namazume, the extra freshness and smooth, easy-drinking nature of this style of sake appears to suit the British palate.


The United States: a growing market


Stephen King, is COO of True Sake ( ) in San Francisco, America's first sake shop:

"We are selling substantially more expensive and rare bottles as sake drinkers' discernment increases. Younger drinkers, between the age of 21 and 35, are beginning to buy sake outside of sushi restaurants, for drinking at home. Generally speaking our customers have typically been 35+, most still are, but there's definitely an expansion to the younger tech set.  Both these trends are reflected in a 35%+ increase in year-over-year sales. Although, this may be unique to us. Our neighbourhood is changing, it's a hot spot for younger more affluent people because of the tech industry.

 "Sales of cups and cans are definitely increasing on the entry level end, and we see this as a likely trend next year. We are expanding our offering in this area and encouraging brewers to provide good quality sake in this format too.

"Sparkling sake sales, which will certainly increase, having been growing somewhat, although they still account for less than 5% of our sales. 

"Nigori sales are likely to decrease. We are selling less Nigori over time as people's experience extends beyond mediocre restaurant sake. Nigori (as well as warm sake) is typically served at many Japanese restaurants in the US. The products are very weak, and it's actually a bit of a disservice, especially if it is someone's first experience with sake. Since we cater to people who are a little more educated and/or interested in expanding their horizons, we aren't selling a lot of it anymore, probably 5% of sales now.

"We have expanded our sales beyond San Francisco through e-commerce (although we are severely limited to a small number of states because of post-prohibition era laws). We are certainly seeing pent-up demand...US sake drinkers are frustrated by the lack of access to quality sake in many states.


Rick Smith, founding owner of Sayaka New York City, the first and only premium sake shop in New York:

 "The Dassai brand has become a name that many customers have come to seek out without prompting this year, although we've been selling it since we first opened seven years ago.  Seasonal, unpasteurized sake have also become more popular as consumers have now learned to enjoy namazake for its fresh, exuberant character.

"Nigorizake and sparkling sake have lost a bit of interest as sophistication in taste and the exploration of craft and micro-brewed jizake increases, although it is still popular among people new to premium sake

"We've also noticed that there is a greater tendency toward exploration outside the familiar.  Many folks first came to us because they had enjoyed a particular sake but were reluctant to go further afield.  Now, as they have gained confidence in the quality and variety of premium sake, more are going outside their comfort zone to experience other styles.

"It is difficult to project big changes but rather, based on what we've seen evolve over the past seven years, we expect that as our customers continue to expand their body of premium sake experience, there will be a corresponding increase in appreciation of the spectrum of different sake styles, ways to drink sake, and the immense variety of food with which to drink them."

Japan: The Mature Market

 John Gauntner is the world's leading non-Japanese, sake expert. He is a sake writer, educator, judge and consultant based in Japan and you can read more of his views at

 "Junmai-shu and the four grades of ginjo are really increasing in popularity, on average a 6 to 10% increase per year. Although they make up just 20% of the market altogether max.

 "Sparkling sake is a bit more visible, but we need to keep our perspective. Of perhaps 20,000 sake products there are maybe 150 sparkling. If there were 100 last year and there are 150 this year, that is an increase, but overall it is far from a trend.

"There are more high-grade yamahai and kimoto styles, for example amongst daiginjo, which is a genuinely interesting trend to me, though not a major trend.

"Honjozo as a category continues to fall fast. I think it is in this no-man's land between cheap sake and premium sake, so it has no solid footing in either realm. Shame, as there is plenty of good honjozo out there, but folks seem to go to (less commonly, as it is contracting as well) futsu-shu, or on the other end of the spectrum, to the more premium junmai-shu or one of the four ginjo types.

"Younger people (on average in their 30s) are definitely getting back into premium sake. A very cool trend, but sake still has a long way to go to regain market presence. I do see more marketing efforts by small brewers and groups of brewers to appeal to younger drinkers, which has led to a positive result.

"In 2015, I see a continuation of what has begun in 2014, futsu-shu and honjozo will drop more despite efforts by producers to stop that slide. Junmai and the four ginjo types will grow in popularity, with a lot more sake from hitherto unknown brewers in the countryside coming to be enjoyed by younger people."

Ken Ohashi is a leading wine and sake industry professional based in Tokyo, Japan. He is a sake lecturer, buyer, writer, judge, and consultant.

"For entry-level sake, dry styles are still popular, particularly the "Karakuchi"(dry style). Entry-level medium-sweet style sparkling sakes like Mio (made by one of giants- Shouchikubai) have also sold well. It's also selling well in the New York, London, Paris, and Dubai markets. Surprisingly, despite being a relatively-new product, Mio, has gained the highest market share in the sparkling sake category VERY rapidly, just as Casella's "Yellow Tail" (wine brand) did in the Japanese market.   

"For higher-end, premium sakes, slightly sweeter styles such as Jikon (from Mie) and Syaraku (from Fukushima) seem to be getting more and more popular.

"Sake fermented with 'Association yeast strain number 18', which makes sake with a perfumed aroma and slightly lower acidity are also doing well and  have increased their market share.

"Some sake producers are starting to cultivate their own rice fields, and a lot now have strict contracts with individual farmers. This is a shift in strategy (most previously buying in their rice) meaning they can get the specific quality of rice they want.

"New, modern, sometimes very funky labels based on traditional Kanji (Japanese character) labels are being increasingly used by a lot of producers. Several lifestyle and gourmet food magazines have recently featured sake, encouraging this trend. Sakes adopting new funky labels are giving a completely different (modern) image to consumers. These products have a huge potential to expand sales in the Japanese domestic market.

"Sake producers in Japan are developing strategies to target the non-Japanese market. There are several events coming up in Japan in which to discuss this. We all want to export sake to other countries more. The effort being put into this is being stepped up."