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Britain is finally waking up to the unmistakable smell of sake

by Philip Harper

I recently returned from Britain, where I took part in some events sponsored by the Japan Central Brewers’ Association and the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. I was impressed by the quality and the sheer variety of sake offered by Japanese brewers and enthusiastic local distributors such as Tazaki Foods.

Sake has not had much shelf space in the U.K. until now, such pioneers as the Rais Wain Shoppu in London’s Soho district notwithstanding. But things are rolling at last.

Tak Tokumine, the director of the Japan Centre on Regent Street is expanding his shop this month, and plans to dedicate a huge 80 square meters of floor space to sake. Tireless ambassador for Japanese culture though he is, he is also a shrewd businessman, and it is clear that he expects great returns for surfing the swelling U.K. sake wave.

As in the U.S., where sushi has reached a level of staple familiarity, the main engine for sake growth is food. Even the supermarkets of the conservative U.K. now have sushi next to the sandwiches. According to Japanese trade body JETRO, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of Japanese restaurants in the U.K. in the last five years.

I took part in a seminar with Kubota Ichiro, the chef of Mayfair restaurant Umu, who imports soft Japanese water to make the vital dashi stock for his Kyoto-style food, complemented by what he claims is the largest sake selection in Europe. A packed tasting event took place at Saki, a new restaurant near London’s Smithfield Meat Market, which offers an inventive course of sake (plus some wine) to complement specific food courses, an idea I have often suggested, with sadly little success, here in Japan.

Sake’s ever-higher international profile owes much to the appeal of the traditions, flavor and mystique of Japanese cuisine, but it seems that both Japanese cuisine and sake really take off in popularity terms when they are embraced by non-Japanese restaurants and shops. It is reportedly hard for a Chinese or Korean restaurant to succeed in New York without a sushi bar. In a similar way, bars and non-Japanese restaurants increasingly find it indispensable to have a sake selection on their lists — a phenomenon just beginning to emerge in England’s capital now.

To nurture the swelling interest in sake, pioneering Japanese food writer Shirley Booth has founded the British Sake Association to promote sake, and provide the growing band of U.K. sake lovers with opportunities to learn and drink more.

It may be a little while before I can wander into a London pub and order sake, but the day is coming closer. With Britain’s climate, it seems the shivering hordes that spill out of pubs onto the pavement could use the heartwarming buzz of hot nihonshu.

Master Brewer Philip Harper is the author of “The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur’s Guide” (Kodansha International)