Britain’s appetite for sake is showing signs of growth

by Ayla Cameron


Despite falling sales in Japan, sake is experiencing an increase in popularity in Britain. The popularity seems to be reflected not only in brisk local sales but also in talk in the media that the Japanese rice wine may finally be entering the mainstream.

According to research by drinks supplier Bibendum, sake sales in Britain have increased by 240 percent over the past 10 years.

The days when sake could only be found in Japanese restaurants are gone, too. The drink is now stocked in a wide range of venues across Britain, including pop-up dining experiences, cocktail bars and department stores.

And there is now a sake brewery, Kanpai, located in Peckham, South London.

Kanpai, a name derived from the Japanese word for “cheers,” is thought to be the first sake brewery in Britain.

It was founded by the recently married Lucy and Tom Wilson, who started brewing sake after a trip to Japan during which they fell in love with the drink.

Tom had experience brewing his own beer, so sake felt like a natural progression for the couple. Lucy describes it as “a hobby that got out of control.”

They produced their first official batch of sake in April this year.

The premises where they brew is small and they are quickly outgrowing it. The couple has plans to find larger premises and buy better equipment, and they dream of opening a sake bar one day.

The couple says the reaction they are getting from customers in London has been encouraging, with Kanpai sake now stocked at Selfridges, a major department store chain.

“Hopefully, the small bit of noise we are making is encouraging others to not only drink sake but maybe actually set up some breweries in this country and elsewhere,” Tom says.

“I think the best way to encourage other countries and other cultures to embrace something is for them to delve in and get a bit more involved themselves,” he adds.

This view is supported by Hiroyuki Ito of Japanese spirits maker Takara Shuzo, who is hopeful that British-based sake breweries will further increase awareness of the traditional drink.

Describing the presence of breweries such as Kanpai as “encouraging,” Ito hopes that they can help to change common misconceptions many people have about sake.

While sake sales have been increasing in Britain, many potential consumers are unsure how to enjoy the drink. “Many people still think that sake contains a high percentage of alcohol, around 40 percent, and should be drunk like a tequila shot,” Ito says.

In fact most sake falls between 14 percent and 16 percent. The drink is meant to be sipped slowly, and is often best enjoyed in conjunction with food specially selected to compliment its flavor.

There is, however, some way to go before sake enters the mainstream, as some British media outlets, including The Daily Telegraph, have reported.

But with such passionate advocates of the drink encouraging others in Britain to take the plunge, this may not be as far away as once thought.