Sake: The rice man cometh

Drinks: Drinks
Location: Japan

Sake sales are growing fast in the UK – and they’re not limited to Japanese (or Asian) restaurants either. Christine Parkinson of Hakkasan tells us what the fuss is all about

We may be in the middle of ‘Credit Crunch II: The Sequel’, but more bottles of saké are being sold here than ever before. The UK is currently the fastest growing export market for Japan’s famous tipple. And it’s not just down to Japanese restaurants either – saké’s going mainstream.

In the last couple of years, saké has escaped its sushi bar ghetto, and attracted the attention of a new type of customer. First out of the blocks, predictably, were cocktail bartenders, who never knowingly pass up a good new ingredient.

Then saké started appearing in restaurants with other (non-Japanese) Asian cuisines (sales at Hakkasan, for instance, have really taken off), while Berry Bros & Rudd led the way for the serious wine trade. Now saké’s starting to turn up in top-end eateries: even culinary institution The Fat Duck sells it.


So how exactly do you sell saké? Is it complicated? Well, the answer is, ‘not at all’. You just need a few basic pointers.

Saké is a ‘hand-sell’, so you’ll need your explanations ready. Mention a few of these points, and you should have a sale…

  • It has a great range of flavours: fruity, creamy, nutty, floral – in fact it’s just as varied as wine.
  • It has less acidity than wine, so is easier for many people to drink.
  • It can be sparkling, cloudy, sweet, dry or aged.
  • It doesn’t contain sulphites, or any other additives – it’s ‘natural’, but without any of the controversy surrounding natural wines.
  • It goes well with food – everything from fish and chips to pizza, but cheese is the best match of all.
  • It’s fresh: most saké is less than a year old when it’s drunk.
  • It’s traditional: saké was being made at least 1,400 years ago.

The first challenge is finding some saké to buy. Many suppliers of Japanese goods sell saké, but there are specialists too (see box on p.100). You don’t want ‘cooking saké’, so ask for pukka Japanese (not American) brands, and fresh stock (two years old or less). It’s also worth checking that the bottles have English language labels on the back. Arrange a tasting with the supplier and pick out some sakés you like. That’s all there is to it. If you can buy beer or wine, you’ll be fine buying saké!

Even if you buy just one saké, there are plenty of options. Include a saké on the drinks list in your bar, or match saké to a dish on your tasting menu. If you already have a wine flight, substitute one wine with a saké. Choose something approachable and mid-priced such as a junmai or ginjo, and you’re in business.


Even better, with just three sakés you can create a dedicated section on your drinks list. Three is plenty to showcase some very different styles, and give customers an excuse to experiment. For example:

– One sparkling saké or nigori (cloudy) saké (in a 30cl bottle)
– One junmai (by carafe or 72cl bottle)
– One ginjo (by carafe or 72cl bottle)

If your fridge/shelves are deep enough, you can also opt to buy the good value 180cl size which is so popular in Japan, but don’t expect to sell a whole bottle. In fact most customers will choose to go with a 30cl bottle or a carafe until they get used to drinking saké.

Luckily most styles of saké keep well in the fridge once opened, certainly for longer than wine. If you avoid ‘nama’ (unpasteurised) or sparkling sakés, an open bottle is fine for a week, often more.

Special serving equipment isn’t strictly necessary, but is well worth having. Westerners love traditional saké carafes (‘tokkuri’ or ‘katakuchi’) and saké cups (‘choko’ or ‘guinomi’). Most ‘tokkuri’ hold around 175ml, an ideal serving for two, and keeps the selling-price down. It’s also perfectly acceptable to serve saké in wine glasses, or you can get special saké glasses from companies like Riedel, if you prefer.

Premium saké is usually served chilled, so there’s no need to invest in saké-warming equipment if you just have a small list. Suppliers can help you pick suitable saké to serve from the fridge or at room temperature. If you want to offer warm saké, you can buy special
saké warmers, or improvise with a small bain-marie. Just don’t use a microwave
– it spoils the flavour! 

Saké names can seem confusing. There is generally a brand name, a brewery name and a name for the particular ‘cuvée’, not to mention the type of rice: plus lots of terms for how the saké was made. 

But you don’t need to print all this on your list. Just put the brand name and cuvée, plus the prefecture (region) if you want. You’ll also need to show what the grade or type of saké is. Keep it simple: customers will be more interested in a few words about how the saké tastes, than an essay on how it was made.


Once you’ve built-up a saké list, you need to think about how to sell from it. Most people have no idea what saké is, and many even think it’s a spirit. In fact, saké is closer to a wine in strength and style, and is made by a brewing process similar to, but more complex than, that used in the manufacture of beer.

The main ingredients are rice, yeast, koji (a ‘friendly’ mould that breaks down the starch in rice grains) and water. Some styles have alcohol added during brewing, but this makes them smoother and more fragrant, not stronger.

Another taste factor is the rice-polishing rate. All saké rice is polished, or milled, in order to remove the outside of the rice grains. The more polished, the fruitier and more elegant the saké will be (not to mention more expensive). Saké is usually pasteurised, eliminating the need for any preservatives. In fact, Japanese brewers discovered pasteurisation around 500 years ago, long before Louis Pasteur got around to figuring it out!


Daiginjo: Ultra-premium saké, aromatic and elegant, made from rice polished down to 50% or less.

Ginjo: Premium saké, fruity and smooth, made from rice polished down to 60% or less.

Honjozo: Full-flavoured saké, made from rice polished down to 70% or less.

Junmai: A creamy, weighty style of saké, known as ‘pure rice’.

Kimoto: Similar to Yamahai (see below).

Nigori: Cloudy saké.

Yamahai: Bold, funky style of saké, made with old-fashioned methods.


Dewazakura Oka Ginjo
£17.20/72cl, World Saké Imports Fruity, smooth and aromatic.

Gorin Junmai
£14.10/72cl, Hasegawa Sakéten Creamy, mineral and savoury.

Sayuri, Nigori
£4.97/30cl, JFC UK Light, fresh and cloudy.

These companies all ship saké to the UK several times a year and have a fair choice of styles:

Hasegawa Sakéten: [email protected]é
JFC Ltd: [email protected]
Tazaki Foods: [email protected]
World Saké Imports:  [email protected]é.com

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