If you think of the new value-added sake as providing the drinker with a special experience, it can start taking its cues from wine. Until now, the value of a sake has been based on its specifications: the rarity of the rice and how heavily it is milled, or how it’s brewed. Wine has a much broader range of factors that affect its value: the winery, terroir, year of production, the story and vintage. Some wines go for extremely high prices at auction.
Ikoma theorises that the reason why wine has become so readily accepted all over the world is precisely because it has a wide range of prices and standards of evaluation. It has diversity. You have your reasonably priced but perfectly drinkable everyday wines, and sublime vintages that provide that pinnacle of experience. That is what allows wine to spread throughout a country’s food culture, and therefore what sake needs to emulate.
The stage where sake seems to have the greatest opportunities is outside Japan. Based on export volumes and customs duties, sake sold outside Japan is traded for 3 to 5 times its domestic price. And its popularity keeps growing year by year.
Driven by the popularity of Japanese food, the overseas market for sake is growing year on year. It was worth less than JPY 3.2 billion in 2001 but jumped to JPY 18.7 billion in 2017, setting a new record for the eight year in a row.
The UK-based International Wine Challenge, the largest competition of its kind, introduced a sake division in 2007. By 2018 456 kura had entered 1,639 products. And April 2018 also saw the opening of a restaurant complex collaboration between Dassai and renowned French chef Joël Robuchon in Paris (called “Dassai Joël Robuchon” in case you were wondering).
Overseas chefs and sommeliers have also been quick to pair sake with both Japanese and non-Japanese food, just as they would for wine. Its smooth flavour means it can cover a wide range of cooking, from French to Chinese to experimental.
There is a surge in sake breweries opening outside Japan, led by the USA, but also Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brazil and more. There are over 40 worldwide, with over 20 in the US alone. The Dojima Sake Brewery in Cambridge, south-east England, opened in October 2018 as part of the venerable brewery of the same name in Osaka. Its premium sake goes for GBP 1,000 per bottle. Next is Asashi Shuzo, makers of Dassai, who are investing in a site in New York State capable of producing 7,000 koku.
Ikoma things this jizake approach to drinking sake overseas as works in the favour of Japanese kuramoto. The ready availability in other countries of freshly-pressed shiboritate or six-month matured hiyaoroshi, or styles like muroka nama genshu (unfined, unpasteurised, undiluted) at reasonable prices allows consumers to see a side of sake that they never have before. Wider horizons when it comes to sake inevitably leads to increased interest in the premium segment, and to sake being commonly accepted as on a par with French wine. This is the way to fully unlock sake’s potential.
Japanese sake is undergoing a paradigm shift, developing a premium market with products that can stand in for high-end vintage wine or whisk(e)y as a status symbol.
Ikoma points out that although the pace of sake exports in 2018 meant it would almost certainly set a new record, it was still only a matter of JPY 18.7 million. It has a long way to go before it can start being compared to French wine, which generates over JPY 1 billion in exports. Values and tastes are becoming more diverse, and this new age of variety is where sake can thrive.
Everyone is on the hunt for the ultimate experience, and Ikoma wants to offer the kind of sake that provides it. He points out that the entire reason why he started his business was because a sake turned his expectations upside down. It made his life richer, and he wants to share that experience with the world. He wants more people talking about sake, because that is what will grow the market.
- Original article (Japanese, Forbes Japan, 29 November 2018)