Sake popularity surging abroad but marketing needed

by Richard Sunley


At a luxury hotel in an affluent corner of west London, Rajan Ragesamy, a certified sake sommelier based in the United Arab Emirates, raises a wooden mallet above his head in preparation to crack open a fresh barrel.

With an almighty swing, he brings down the mallet on the wooden lid of the ornate sake barrel and the audience full of sake enthusiasts, alcohol suppliers and journalists breaks out into appreciative applause. Ragesamy has just won the 2013 sake sommelier of the year competition, held by the British-based Sake Sommelier Association (SSA).

Against the backdrop of increasing international interest in Japanese food, and with “washoku” (traditional Japanese cuisine) attaining Intangible Cultural Heritage status from UNESCO, sake finally appears to be making its mark on the world stage.

According to statistics from the Japanese National Tax Agency, exports of sake have gone up by more than twofold since 2001, reaching 14,130 kiloliters in 2012. Figures for early 2013 indicate the pace of increase may even have accelerated over the past 12 months.

Although the biggest markets are currently in East Asia and the United States, organizations such as the SSA are playing a role in expanding sake’s appeal in Britain, elsewhere in Europe and other regions.

The SSA runs a variety of courses aimed at both sake novices and those with some prior knowledge. During a class held at the prestigious Harrods department store in London in November, students learned about the history, production processes and unique tastes of a variety of types of sake.

Around 15 students took part in an animated tasting and study session where SSA founder Kumiko Ohta and Xavier Chapelou, a sake and wine specialist, explained the intricacies of sake.

According to Ohta, the organization has nurtured sake enthusiasts from around the world, and graduates have gone on to spread their knowledge and passion for sake in countries ranging from Britain and Canada to Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

“The knowledge of students taking the classes is increasing year after year,” said Ohta. “It’s important to develop people with the knowledge and enthusiasm to explain the attraction of sake in order to spread its popularity.”

One such person is 2013 sake sommelier of the year Ragesamy. He works in Dubai helping to supply a variety of hotels and restaurants with imported Japanese sake and other beverages.

Ragesamy completed his course in 2009 and now teaches people in his country about sake.

Regarding sake’s popularity there, he said: “It is very much increasing. We had nothing in 2007 and 2008, then we had a lot of Japanese restaurants coming up. We (now) sell 200 different sakes in the UAE.”

Nevertheless he feels more could be done to increase sake’s profile in the Arab state.

“I think it needs more effort from everybody,” he said. “We want breweries to invest in marketing. This is very important.”

He cited the example of Heineken beer, saying that “a few years ago there was nothing. Why is it popular now? Because of marketing. But I think we will do good on sake soon. There is a lot of demand.”

In recent years, sake has also become a regular feature at the International Wine Challenge, an international competition held in London to judge the world’s best wines. Since 2007, sake has had its own category in the competition, thus helping to spread knowledge of sake to a wider audience.

Takahiko Yamada of the Japan External Trade Organization believes that understanding of sake in Britain has increased in leaps and bounds over the last few years with basic knowledge increasing dramatically.

This knowledge, alongside a growing number of sommeliers with a good understanding of sake as well as its rising profile among those in the restaurant business, has helped further expand sake’s popularity.

Yet despite such progress, Yamada said there is still work to be done if sake is to make a lasting impact, due in part to high prices.

“Due to the logistical issues, the price of a bottle of sake is around two to three times higher than it would be in Japan,” Yamada explained. “These costs arise due in part to the difficulty of transporting sake as it must be placed in a temperature-controlled container. The high cost is therefore somewhat inevitable. The important thing is to work out how to sell to the upper end of the market.”

Yamada also believes the way sake is distributed can be improved.

“It’s important to get bottles of sake into shops that locals frequent, not just Japanese restaurants,” he said. “It’s also key to create better contacts with big wine distributors as this will help sake to get into smaller alcohol retailers.”