Upbeat Mood: Sake on the Rise in London

“The UK is well placed to promote sake” – stated the closing line in my previous article on the styles of sake. This week I have met two leading wine professionals, Christine Parkinson of Hakkasan and Xavier Chapelou of iSake, from the London restaurant scene in order to explore the driving forces behind the growth in popularity of sake. But remember, success must be earned and it has its challenges too.

It was not an easy start, as Xavier explained. In 2004 it was extremely difficult to buy premium sake in London, which was symptomatic of the situation. In stark contrast, if you were to dine out in New York City, there was a wealth of choices. The situation has changed and London is now offering an exciting range of sakes from commercial styles to premium categories. Christine, Group Wine Buyer of Hakkasan, said that they had always had sake behind the bar – for cocktails and mixers – but it was two or three years before that an interest had been detected. Consequently, sake was promoted from behind the bar to the wine list of Yauatcha, a Michelin-starred contemporary dim sum teahouse of the group, and now both Hakkasan Mayfair and Hanway Place have a separate page dedicated to sakes. The message is clear, you need to list and talk sake to satisfy and awake interest. That is: communication is key to successfully marketing sake.

Interest has certainly surged. Consumer courses – under the name Sake Navigator –have been offered by iSake since 2006 and it is two years ago that a two-day training, leading to Certified Sake Sommelier, was set up specifically aimed at the on-trade professional. Kumiko Ohta, a director of iSake and Kikisake-shi lecturer herself, and Xavier explained that their take on delivering sake courses were different. They try to put through the message about the culture and consumption of sake to ‘students’ accepting the fact that Westerners have a great disadvantage due to a very limited, if any, understanding of Japanese culture, but at the same time they are keen to break the pattern of drinking sake only warm no matter what quality. Christine has a similar impression that quite often sommeliers were heating up lesser sakes and consumers were in need of expert advice on such questions as the ideal temperature of a certain sake for drinking.

Hakkasan does take sake seriously. Christine with three of her senior sommeliers attended the iSake course for professionals and there are plans for in-house training for other junior members of staff as well. The importance of product knowledge cannot be emphasised enough. However, a knowledgeable team of waiters will not do the trick alone. You also need to have a cultural or culinary affinity, which Hakkasan does have. What about the rest of Lodnon?

The Cinnamon Club, a fine-dining Indian restaurant in London, was one of the pioneering establishments to offer sake for its customers. The idea was that sonti, an Indian rice wine, is similar to sake, therefore it would not be alien culturally. However, matching sake with food is a different game than wine. It is all about texture as opposed to structure and flavour. Thus, what works differently with sake in comparison to wine, as Xavier explained, is that the characteristics of wine are to counterbalance the flavours of the meal, whilst sake is much more about boosting them. A good piece of advice to keep in mind, especially with hot and spicy Indian dishes. Among other non-Japanese restaurants now listing sake Xavier mentioned Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, the French restaurant group Club Gascone (’04 vintage Koshu sake pairs here well with foie gras); and the Michelin-starred Le Gavroche (the tasting menu features sake).

So how does sake pay off for a business? At Hakkasan the proportion of sake in drinks sales is estimated to be around 5% and further growth is expected. However, the profitability ratio is approximately 10% worse than for wines. So, why boost the category when the margin is lower? Because diners enjoy it and sake complements well the Cantonese cuisine of Hakkasan, who are trend-setters by moving sake out of its traditional homeland of Japanese restaurants. Christine believes that the profitability ratio can be improved over a period of time, which is a question of relentless work and service.

Assuming that the supply of sake is assured, which has been a hot issue since the earthquake induced tsunami earlier this year. The natural disaster wiped some breweries off the face of Earth, others have been badly affected as either their rice or water comes from the exclusion zone in and around the area of Fukushima. This has led to a decreased capacity in production. The slow implementation of safety screening agricultural products to be exported from Japan in some cases led to having mixed consignments of screened and unscreened goods arriving in the UK, which left the Customs Authorities with the task of destroying the whole of the consignment.

Part of the truth is that the commercial network of sake in the UK had not been developed well enough before the disaster either – as I learnt it from Christine. Sake used to be imported by non-specialist merchants on the basis of having some spare space in their container full of stainless steel, noodles or other merchandise. As such, the service that restaurateurs got from the importer was not comparable to buying wine, where staff training and knowledge provision are often part of the merchant – restaurateur relationship. Additionally, there was no guarantee for the continuity of supply, as sake was just an add-on to the shipments.

The situation has changed though and that is why the UK is in a good place to promote sake. Now there are two major specialist importers in London, who provide plenty of information to restaurants as part of the relationship. The upbeat mood can be detected everywhere be it the on-trade or retail. Hakkasan is going to integrate the sake warming equipment into the sommelier stand in order to provide it an appropriate place and thereby making sake an integral part of the Hakkasan experience. Harrods, the famous Knightsbridge based retailer, had Xavier and the iSake team run a sake tasting for consumers as part of their efforts to nurture the sales of sake. Christine’s diagnosis that sake is on the way of moving out from a culturally and culinarily restricted niche of the market is hitting the nail on the head. London is well on the way to becoming an exciting sake city, as more people talk, drink and think sake.

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