On Monday 20th August 2012 I was privileged to be invited to attend the inaugural London Sake Challenge held by the Sake Sommelier Association. This was the first international competition held in London which was solely devoted to the tasting of Sake, and for me personally, it was a revelation.
The challenge to identify the best individual Sake and Sake brewery was held in Harrods’s new Tasting Room, situated discreetly on the lower ground floor of the vast department store. Having never been to Harrods before, my sense of anticipation was running high as I made my gradual progress down the escalators. I eventually arrived at the highly impressive Wine and Spirits section, where a group of Sake Sommeliers were starting to gather expectantly.
After a brief period, of reunion (for the experts) and introduction (for myself), we were ushered into the tasting room itself. Once we were all gathered around the dark-wood table and a profound sense of occasion had been given time to pervade the atmosphere, we were introduced to the organisers of the event, its benefactors, and their shared ambition. Following instruction as to the format of the event, the assembled experts eagerly began their exploration of the Sakes presented before them.
With respect for my hosts, for the Sake Sommeliers and for the beverage itself I resisted the temptation to be carried away by the urgency that was all around me, and I took a moment to reflect upon my surroundings. It is testament to the sheer excitement felt by all present that I was the only one seated in the chairs provided. Impressive as I felt the more permanent fixtures of the new Tasting Room were, I will venture that the room has never been more beautifully laid out than it was for this event.
Each individual Sake was arranged on the tasting table with the utmost care. Carafes containing the beverage were delicately situated upon decorative lacquer wood pouring trays. Many small, simple porcelain Sake cups or kikichoko stood at the ready nearby. This neat, functional arrangement contrasted well with the splendid centrepieces of the room and the event, the Sake bottles themselves. Since the aesthetics of each bottle would also be judged at a later stage, at the start of the tasting each was hidden by a beautifully designed unique furoshiki, or wrapping cloth. I saw that the organisers of the event were well justified in their sense of pride and achievement.
Since other similarly adorned bottles now took up the shelves on the far wall, I must confess that it struck me as rather odd that these bottles of Sake should be situated in the prestigious tasting room in the cellar of Harrods, nestling hidden in all their brightly coloured finery beside the sombre labels and established names of the world of fine wine. However the thought was fleeting, and I remembered that I was there to learn about the drink itself.
The organisers had emphasised that Sake must be understood and appreciated as Sake, and not as anything else, and that each Sake provides a unique and individual tasting experience. With this in mind I approached the nearest carafe, and began my exhilarating journey.
The product tasting was divided into two sessions, morning and afternoon. The majority of Sakes present were premium grade, or Junmai Daiginjō-shu, and each had their own distinctive characteristics. In my opinion the finest Sakes were clear in colour with silver tinges on the edges. On the nose they were subtle and restrained but fresh and clean with notes of Fuji apple, often with a hint of aniseed and cherry blossom to follow. On the palate they were smooth, with stone fruits and even tropical fruits featuring prominently, backed up with Sake’s distinctive malted (kōji) taste and ending with a satisfying mineral-edged finish. A large proportion of the forty five Sakes present tasted at this level.
Over lunch I had some more time for contemplation. It is my belief that Sake is a drink for reflection. The Sake Sommelier Association did an excellent job of recreating the most notable aspects of Sake drinking culture, and of these the crucial importance individual’s relationship with the beverage through tasting seemed by far the most significant. The multitude of tasting procedures each of the judges used testified to this fact, yet as the event progressed, common tendencies revealed themselves. The initial excitement and urgent sense of purpose with which each Sommelier returned to Sake in this new setting mixed with profound and complex appreciation as they re-familiarised themselves with its subtleties. As they tasted more and more Sakes their understanding was heightened, and their facial expressions and mannerisms spoke not only of developing knowledge, but of striving for an ideal, an absolute, for enlightenment, all to identify Sake perfection. I imagine this to be very much like the process of the Sake brew-masters or Tōji themselves.
Each Sommelier brought their own unique perspective to the tasting. For my part I found Sake to be among the purest, subtlest and most precisely crafted drinks I have yet enjoyed. For me each Sake is a finality, as they require neither further bottle age nor aeration to reach their full potential. As the proud result of a painstaking process, each was presented with a compelling mixture of earnestness, pride and humility. The lasting impression I was left with was the striking contrast between Sake’s elegant subtlety and the sumptuous splendour of Harrods itself. By the end of the day it became my firm belief that each richly decorated Sake bottle had earned its place in that room.
The event recognised Sake’s continued improvement in quality and its potential on the international market. Since suffering a decline from the 1970s Sake has responded to the challenges posed by the increased availability and popularity of international wines, beers and spirits in Japan. Fortunately Sake breweries continued to develop their art, fuelling a recent renaissance in Sake drinking culture in Japan, at the same time that its merits are being discovered by other cultures. Sake sales in major production areas of Japan are again on the rise: in Fukushima by 5%, by 14% for Iwate and by 28% in Miyagi. In the wake of recent natural disasters in Japan, the nation has rallied behind Sake producers in a way that suggests a serious concern to restore Sake to its former prominence.
In terms of international recognition, in surprising testament to how far Sake production has spread, the London Sake Challenge also received two Sakes from Norwegian breweries. Whilst Sake awareness continues to make gradual progress in the USA, the beverage’s remarkable potency in the Asian market was again demonstrated in by the recent Hong Kong Food Expo. However as the Sake Sommelier Association realised, London as an established centre of the global fine wine trade already selling Sake in some of its most fashionable restaurants, is ideally placed to be the centre of Sake’s future European success story.
The results of the 2012 competition are now available on the London Sake Challenge website. In every aspect I believe the event was a resounding success. The Sake Sommelier Association brought together Sake experts from all over the world in a spirit of mutual appreciation, respect and enthusiasm, to create a truly memorable experience in which an international community shared their enjoyment of a beverage so firmly rooted in Japanese culture. There could be no more perfect spirit with which to advance Sake drinking culture, not only in London, but internationally. It was a truly momentous event in the already long and illustrious history of Sake, and I eagerly anticipate more such events in the future.
For those who would like to get a more visual sense of this event here is a video commissioned by the organisers of the event and uploaded onto Youtube. It is well worth the watching.