As more people develop a taste for the rich complexity of the unique drinking experience that is saké, Robin Lynam asks who are the brands du jour in the region and what plans do they have to go up against the already well-established big guns?

Thirty years ago to suggest that Japanese consumption of saké would drop would have been considered as preposterous as to suggest the French would drink less wine. And yet in both cases it has happened. Consumers have either reduced their alcohol intake, or turned instead to other drinks – in the case of the Japanese, wine, whisky and shochu. According to Hiromi Paine, who has been responsible for building up the saké business in Hong Kong for wines and spirits importer Fine Vintage, partly thanks to increasing interest in wine on the part of the Japanese and partly thanks to saké breweries trading up and producing a more expensive product, less affluent drinkers now prefer stronger shochu, while saké is thought of as an “old fashioned drink.” Fortunately for Japan’s saké makers, elsewhere it has become highly fashionable. The biggest international markets for it are, in order, the US, Hong Kong and South Korea, with sales to China, Taiwan and Vietnam also growing rapidly, according to Jacky Cheng, a private account manager for Berry Bros & Rudd (BBR). In the important Hong Kong market, which has the highest per capita saké consumption in the world, BBR represents the full range of saké produced by the Katsuyama brewery, established in 1688.

Export growth

“Saké exports have been growing significantly since 2010,” Paine says. “Exports of Japanese saké marked a record high of US$97 million in terms of value in 2014, and those for this year are likely to post a new record.” Consumers around Asia are increasingly knowledgeable about the product. “When people have Japanese cuisine they like to have saké with it,” says Zuma Hong Kong sommelier Juwan Kim. since 2010 “What surprises me is the value they place on smoothness. Guests seek a very smooth texture which I think relates to Chinese yellow wine and also to blended whisky. Many guests are prepared to pay for quality. People ask questions. Is it dry? Is it smooth? Is it high alcohol? Is it fruity? The tasting profile is very important, but guests don’t care so much about where it comes from,” he says. “The trend of wine lovers drinking saké is very observable in recent years,” says Cheng. “More and more sophisticated drinkers are actively searching for best quality and rare saké all over the internet. The high-end saké market has grown dramatically in the past few years, especially in Hong Kong.” Some saké brands are well established in international markets – among them Dassai, Jyuyondai, and Hakkaisan – but as is the trend in spirits, many bars and restaurants are also looking to source saké from lesser known producers, with artisanal production methods being a strong selling point. Zuma, which has around 120 sakés on its list, aims to attract saké connoisseurs with labels not available elsewhere. “Most exports from Japan are from the big breweries. The smaller boutique, GM Fine Vintage style ones are very happy with domestic consumption,” says Kim. “We are concerned with uniqueness and exclusivity. We work with Suginoi a small size brewery in Gifu. Outside Japan they only sell to Zuma, Hong Kong. Also with Jyuyondai, a very premium saké, we have selections that are not easy to find in other restaurants.”

Rich history

The Jyuyondai brand is owned by the Takagi brewery in Yamagata Province, now under the 14th generation of family management. The Yoshinogawa brewery in Niigata Province, now on the 19th generation, is even older and was founded in 1548. Fine Vintage imports its sakés to Hong Kong. General manager Howard Palmes stresses that Yoshinogawa’s sakés, like any above the basic Futsu-shu grade which is equivalent to western table wine, are not to be served heated in porcelain flasks. “Saké is now generally served cold – particularly saké of any quality. It’s very rare to have it served warm, unless it’s very cheap, or quite cheap and on a very cold day. The moment you get to a quality level of Ginjo-shu or Daiginjo-shu saké, and you heat it, then all the aromas and everything just disappear. Nobody drinks the quality sakés warm, I think.” he says. Although there are independent bars and restaurants around Asia with fair saké selections, and there is a trend towards izakayas and saké bars, particularly in Singapore, the operators best positioned for good saké service around Asia remain hotels, and restaurants like Zuma which are members of sizeable groups with serious buying power. Unlike wine, most saké – even the very expensive bottles such as the Jyuyondai, ‘Kuronawa’ Junmai Daiginjo limited edition which Zuma sells for US$1,778 – is intended to be drunk young, and inventory has to be turned over. “The sort of Japanese restaurants that are in five-star hotels such as Nadaman at the Shangri-La, Imasa at The Peninsula, and Kaetsu at the Grand Hyatt have pretty good lists,” says Palmes. Not all saké fans are buying from those lists, however, as Cheng points out. “In countries like US, South Korea and Vietnam saké is mainly sold in Japanese restaurants to match with Japanese cuisine. Moreover, some very sophisticated drinkers will buy from online shops in Japan for some very rare sakés that they can’t find in the local market.” Volume sales of more modestly priced brews, however, are spread across the phenomenal number of Japanese restaurants around the region. For the traditionally minded, saké remains the best partner to much Japanese food and is indispensible to its preparation. “Almost all of the dishes use saké,” says Kim. “Even sushi rice. It’s not easy to have Japanese cuisine without saké.” With a new emphasis on education about saké in the Asian markets – the WSET now offers a course – more esoteric products are likely to make their way here. Sparkling saké is already well- established in the US and the UK. Non- Japanese saké is another growth sector. Kim points out that saké is also made in California, Hawaii, Canada and Argentina, although mostly, he says, in a heavy, old fashioned style. It may no longer suit the popular taste in the country that gave it birth, but with a history dating back to the third century AD, in Asia and around the world saké looks likely to be with us for centuries yet.