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Published:  23 July, 2008

Kumiko Ohta and two French sommeliers, Jean-Louis Naveilhan and Xavier Chapelou, set up premium sake distribution company Isak in April 2004. The company supplies restaurants and retail outlets and sells its range of around 20 premium sakes through its website, as well as running courses in sake appreciation for both the trade and private customers and organising dinners matching sake to Italian food at Fabbrica restaurant on Battersea Park Road. Ohta's parents cultivate the rice that is used in the production of sake in Fukuroi, near Mount Fuji.

Why did you choose to call the company Isak?

Well, in Japanese, Isak means lovely sake', because i' in Japanese means love'. We did consider that some people might pronounce the name e-sake', but that is okay because e-sake' means good sake' in Japanese! Also, on our labels, the dot above the i' is a red circle, representing the Japanese flag.

Why did you develop a special label for your range of sakes?

The Japanese labels on premium sake are very beautiful, but everything on them is written in Japanese. As most UK consumers can't read Japanese, it makes it very difficult for them to understand exactly what they are buying! To solve this problem we have added a very simple generic label, with English wording, on the other side of each bottle. The label also includes our logo, a manga cartoon of the three of us [the company founders: Kumiko Ohta, Jean-Louis Naveilhan and Xavier Chapelou]. We chose manga because it is a part of Japanese culture that is also very popular in Europe, and we also wanted to highlight the fun side of the company!

How did you all meet, and why did you decide to set up Isak?

In 2001, Selfridges organised a promotion called Tokyo Life' and I co-ordinated the visit of a group of about 20 Japanese sake brewers who came over from Japan for the promotion, acting as their translator. Jean-Louis and Xavier were working in the wine department at Selfridges, and they became very interested in the premium sake that the brewers had brought with them. Before the promotion, Selfridges didn't stock any premium sake at all, so it was a big opportunity to introduce it to people in the UK. Following that event we decided to set up Isak and launched the company in April 2004.

How much premium sake is available in the UK?

Actually, we are the only company importing premium sake to the UK, so there is a very tiny amount available.

How many sakes do you import?

We have about 20 sakes from five different breweries. There used to be 30,000 sake brewers in Japan, but today there are less than 1,400.

How did you select the sakes you represent?

We chose producers according to the terroir (the soil, climate and the type of rice used in the production), and we looked for producers who were using only locally grown rice. The region of origin is a guide to sake style, and we wanted to offer our customer a wide range. Sake is very similar to wine in that there is a wide range of styles. For example, sake from the north of Japan tends to be drier and more delicate in style because the climate is colder, whereas in the south, the sake tends to be bolder and more full-bodied, and typically has peachy flavours. We also stock some specialty sake, such as Nigori, which is cloudy because it has only been lightly filtered. We have two styles of Nigori, one sweet and one that is slightly frizzante, and it is one of our most successful products.

What is the usual reaction from consumers who attend your tastings?

Well, sake has a very poor image in the UK because most people have only tried the lowest grade of sake, which tends to be served warm, so they think of it as very strong, hot and high in alcohol. But premium sake should actually be served chilled and is closer in style and strength to wine than spirits. People are usually very surprised by the taste and say it isn't what they expected. Also, people often don't realise that you can age premium sake and that it develops in the same way as wine. The oldest vintage we sell is the eight-year-old Izumi 1997 vintage Junmai Ko-shu sake from Suwa brewery in Tottori (priced at 32 for 300ml), which has developed beautifully.

Who do you sell to?

We sell to several top London retailers, including Selfridges, Partridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols, and also supply restaurants. People tend to associate sake with Japanese food, but we want to present it to all the top chefs and demonstrate that it works well with lots of different types of cuisine. We also sell our sakes to private clients through our website.

What are your plans for the future?

At the moment, sales to private customers are a very small part of our business, but we want to try and increase them this year. We also want to offer more training to restaurant staff. But the most important thing for us is to be the voice of the sake brewer in the UK.

sak UK Ltd, 163 Battersea Park Road, London, SW8 4BU

Tel: 07905 711 457, Fax: 020 7622 9241,