My first experience of sake was about six years ago in a run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant that sold bowls of the drink at a piping hot temperature for £10 each. I didn’t exactly hate it, but I wondered what the fuss was all about and decided it wasn’t worth the money. The next time I tried it was at Zuma, Rainer Becker’s celebrated sushi and robata grill restaurant in London. I couldn’t believe I was sipping the same drink.
It seems a lot of people have had the same less than ideal introduction to sake as I had, writing it off as one of those drinks that just ‘aren’t for them’. But as more bottles of higher quality sake become available in the UK and places like Zuma – which happens to have the biggest sake list in Europe – educate people about the drink, we’re beginning to realise just how complex, varied and (most importantly) delicious sake can be.
When Zuma opened fourteen years ago it was the first place to have a sake sommelier in the UK. Today, that job lies with Alastair England. While he’s happy to cater to the many sake connoisseurs that dine at the restaurant, he loves nothing more than introducing sake to those who have never had it before (or, in my case, only tried very poor quality examples).
‘It’s easy to get lost with all the different styles of sake out there, so we really try and focus on introducing people to sake instead,’ he says. ‘Zuma was the first restaurant to really bring sake to the UK, and it’s great having lots of complex amazing varieties on offer, but if you’ve never tried proper sake before it can be overwhelming.’
Over the next couple of hours, Alastair talked me through the basics of sake with serious enthusiasm – how it’s made, the different varieties, how it should be served – and it soon became clear that sake isn’t just the national drink of Japan; it’s something with as much complexity, history and varied flavour as wine. It’s impossible to cover every base in just one article, but if you’ve ever wondered if there’s more to sake and want to get to grips with the fundamentals, read on and get ready to discover a misunderstood and woefully underappreciated drink.