WSET urges trade to increase knowledge of growing sake category

The UK drinks trade has been urged to develop its expertise in sake to capitalise on this burgeoning category.  

It is no longer the preserve of Japanese restaurants and several British retailers, including Bottle Apostle, Vagabond and Hedonism, have reported surging sales of the drink.

But the vast majority of the trade has yet to tap into the potential to boost margins by championing sake. 

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust runs a Level 3 course that provides students with a detailed understanding of the production methods that affect the style, quality and price of sake, thus allowing them to make authoritative recommendations to customers. It also runs a Level 1 course in sake, launched last year, offeringa hands-on introduction to the world of sake.

Students can explore the main styles and types of sake through sight, smell and taste to develop an understanding of the key factors affecting flavours and aromas. 

Natsuki Kikuya, one of the WSET’s three “sake samurais” alongside Antony Moss MW and David Wrigley MW, believes all UK retailers can benefit from sending staff on the course. She told DRN: “Sake is growing in popularity, not just in Japanese markets but in other restaurants and shops, because it is such a unique, artisan product.

“More and more British people are taking it seriously as a category. British people already have a palate as wine and spirits are very popular, and sake is a new flavour being introduced.”

Creating a sake course was tricky for Kikuya, Wrigley, Moss and their team because nothing like it existed and the language used by the Japanese to describe the category was often rudimentary.

Kikuya said: “The qualification focuses on tasting. No other courses focus on tasting, not even in Japan. The Japanese had not developed many different expressions and we only divided it between dry and sweet. 

“There were very ambiguous descriptions, almost onomatopoeic, and nothing organised and structured. We never had a vocabulary to describe it. 

“We had to steal from the wine world and make it up. We used the same structure – acidity and sweetness etc – and added words like umami, and said that a short finish can be outstanding, whereas with wine a long finish is better.”

The course has been a hit, with long waiting lists in Japan and courses run in 20 countries. “We are really expanding,” said Kikuya. “Last year we launched in Japan. It was a challenge to introduce it as an academic category in its home country, because we translated it back from English to Japanese, but 
it has been very well received 
in Japan.”

She added: “It’s very subtle, pure and clean, and very different to wine. It is a different taste, but the more you try it the more you enjoy the purity and simplicity. People find it meditative. 

“Sake has a much shorter shelf life. You can’t leave it in your cellar to evolve. You have to be able to detect the off flavours and know how to keep the freshness of the sake and how to serve it, so the course can be really beneficial.” 

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