Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

Hong Kong and Macau, the sake gateways to China

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

Spirits were high after last week’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony, which took place on March 27 at the Wynn Palace hotel in Macau. Japan’s presence was the country’s strongest to date, with 11 restaurants ranking on the list — including four venues in the award’s top 10. But at the poolside celebration following the event, Japan was in the spotlight for another, more intoxicating reason.

While there I was in conversation with May Chow, owner and chef of Hong Kong’s Little Bao. “You have to check out the sake bar. It’s amazing,” she said, pointing to a crowded counter beside the terrace.

The lineup was impressive, with several varieties of brews from top producers such as Niizawa Jozoten (known for its Hakurakusei label), Hamakawa Shoten (Bijofu) and Takagi Shuzo, makers of the exclusive Juyondai brand. The gala provided an appropriately splashy stage to showcase the Wynn’s extensive high-end sake collection. The resort has more than 70 varieties at the two outlets of its two-Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant, Mizumi.

In keeping with a rise in sake exports around the world, sales of the beverage are growing in Macau, an autonomous region of China known for its casinos and luxury hotels. Driven by the popularity of Japanese cuisine and its associations with prestige, sake exports to Macau rose to a high of ¥150 million in 2017, according to Japan’s Ministry of Finance.

“Sake is becoming more popular here. Many of our guests are keen to try it,” said Mizumi’s head sommelier Just Wong. As he poured me a glass of Mana 1751 from Fukui Prefecture, which accompanied an assortment of seafood and vegetable tempura, Wong explained that the city’s moneyed clientele are developing a taste for super premium sake in particular and “feel comfortable ordering it by the bottle,” rather than by the glass.

While Macau represents a new market in China, neighboring Hong Kong remains the region’s largest sake hub, with imports of ¥2.8 billion in 2017. The segment has swelled dramatically in the past decade, thanks in part to the port’s zero-tax policy on wine and beer that came into force in 2008.

When Elliot Faber, sake consultant and co-founder of the Yardbird group, first moved to Hong Kong seven years ago, premium brews could be found at international chains such as Nobu or Zuma, but restaurants specializing in sake were few and far between. Today, the scene is awash with the beverage, both at retail shops and, increasingly, at non-Japanese eateries. The drink is on the menu at high-end Chinese restaurant Mott 32 and Mexican joint Chino, and paired with pho at Vietnamese Co Thanh.

“The word is out, and now Hong Kong loves sake of all kinds,” Faber says.

At Sake Central, a new venture that Faber launched last autumn in the city’s trendy Sheung Wan district, more than 200 bottles line the dramatically lit shelves inside the vast and stylish space. The venue, which functions as a retail and educational facility as well as a bar, comprises multiple galleries displaying products from all over Japan — including unique ceramics crafted by Japanese artisans.

When I visited Sake Central, the counter was packed with groups clinking cups and nibbling on plates of pickles and tofu dumplings. Faber handed me a dish of squid tossed in homemade XO sauce, along with a glass of sake brewed in Canada at the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, which he served from a tap like draught beer. The experience was fun, funky and surprising — everything you would expect from a Hong Kong sake bar.