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Nikkei Style has a feature on sake overseas – but this time as the exclusive drink of the jet set.

Yōko Tateya doesn’t sell sake in Japan, but instead focuses on wealthy Westerners from her bases in Sweden, Switzerland and Australia. A former employee of a non-Japanese financial institution, she makes good use of her international experience to introduce sake to new audiences.

Article author Tomoko Takiguchi (Kikisake-shi and International Kikisake-shi, both Sake Service Institute qualifications) claims in her introduction that sake is all the rage among overseas celebrities, with its high prices due to import duties and shipping costs giving it the image of a high-class drink to be enjoyed at high-end sushi restaurants. Drinking sake, therefore, is a sign of status. Something sipped elegantly by business executives celebrating their successes. More and more overseas business people are used to seeing it drunk this way.  [I’m just reporting this, seriously.]

As director of Japan Treasure Find, Yōko Tateya is selling to these people. She also holds sake seminars for foreigners, and is a member of the general incorporated association 日本のSAKEとWINEを愛する女性の会 (Society of Women Who Love Japanese SAKE and WINE) or SAKE女の会 (SAKE Ladies’ Society) for short. [I’m still not making this up.] She comments that the number of sake events aimed at foreigners is increasing, for example one held by a pharmaceutical company active in both the USA and Japan for its non-Japanese employees. Foreign executives learned about the history of sake and how to taste it as a team-building exercise with their Japanese colleagues. Tateya thinks that sake is one way for foreigners to communicate with the Japanese.

Most of the executives were used to drinking wine with meals, and enjoyed tasting the sake while comparing it to wine. Many were scientifically trained, and got stuck into the details of yeast and brewing. Tateya claims that among a certain set of foreign white-collar employees, sake is one type of status symbol. She continues to claim that in slightly more mature markets, such as the USA, sake is sold for twice or more of the Japanese retail price, whereas in Australia and Europe it sells for 3-4 times that.

After holding sake events both inside and outside Japan, Tateya has come to realise that preferred brands vary by country. One of the countries she exports to is Sweden, where fruity daiginjō are passed over in favour of less aromatic clean-finish dry sake or junmai, sake with depth and umami. Spirits are popular, and most people know quite a bit about alcohol, so the “beginner” fruity and sweet styles aren’t popular. Most people drain their glasses at tastings, which took Tateya by surprise. The Swedes like mellow, structured sake like Yauemon (Yamatogawa brewery, Fukushima), dry sake like Mukansa honjōzō chō-karakuchi (Ichinokura, Miyagi), and traditionally brewed, powerful kimoto and yamahai such as Tamanohikari junmai ginjō CLASSIC (Tamanohikari, Kyoto).

More to come in part 2!