Rice wine makers hope to promote sake overseas

Japan’s top sake producers with celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda (centre, in brown), who is also a sake ambassador. -- PHOTO: MARINA BAY SANDS
Japan’s top sake producers with celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda (centre, in brown), who is also a sake ambassador. -- PHOTO: MARINA BAY SANDS

Rice wine producers hope to boost exports as interest in Japan's cuisine grows overseas

A group of Japan's sake ambassadors and top sake producers hope that the country's rice wine will gain as much popularity around the world as sushi.

While sake exports have more than doubled since 2001, from about 7,000 kilolitres to more than 14,000 kilolitres in 2012, exports make up only about 2 per cent of total production, statistics from Japan's National Tax Agency show.

The potential for growth in the export of sake coupled with the decline in popularity of the beverage among younger Japanese in Japan's domestic market are pushing some leading producers to take their traditional alcoholic beverage overseas.

Producers from nine sake breweries, from prefectures which span Yamagata to Saga, including breweries such as Masuda Sake Company in Toyama prefecture and Shata Shuzo Company in Ishikawa prefecture, say that what is needed to drive interest in the beverage is exposure.

The sake masters and brewery owners were in town to conduct a masterclass at the ArtScience Museum on Monday, which was organised by Marina Bay Sands. The event, which showcased more than 30 types of sake, was attended by about 70 trade professionals and sommeliers.

Sake is no longer in vogue among youngsters in Japan, says Mr Kenichi Ohashi, 47, a third-generation Tokyo-based sake distributor and consultant, who presented a lecture on sake trends at the event. He is also the sake chairman of the prestigious annual International Wine Challenge in London.

One approach which some sake producers are employing in an attempt to lure young Japanese back to their national beverage is to produce flavoured sake, infused with fruit such as plum and yuzu, Mr Ohashi says.

"Breweries then hope that drinking these flavoured sake will create a renewed interest in the beverage and drinkers will then return to authentic sake in the future."

He adds that traditional sake, often associated with the older generation, has a stigma to it, which is one reason why it does not always appeal to the millennial generation.

Sake ambassador Tetsuya Wakuda, 55, the celebrity chef behind Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands and Sydney restaurant Tetsuya's, adds: "People now have access to a lot of other alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer and whisky. There is so much choice in the market and what younger people drink is akin to a fashion trend."

While sake consumption is declining in Japan, the drink is fast becoming a trendy beverage elsewhere in the world.

In December last year, Unesco, the United Nation's cultural organisation, added washoku, an all-encompassing term for traditional Japanese food and cuisine, onto its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

It is against this backdrop of international interest in the cuisine that sake producers hope their beverage will also be propelled into the limelight.

Mr Tazaemon Yamamura, 50, 11th-generation owner of Sakura Masamune, a brewery established in 1625, says: "The popularity of sake has been picking up over the years with the rise of international recognition of Japanese cuisine. This is very helpful for sake, as it goes well with Japanese food.

"We hope people will also be able to rethink and better understand Japanese culture and history."

Sommeliers say they appreciate the subtle, complex and less astringent characteristics in sake and recognise that the drink pairs well with more than just Japanese cuisine.

Indeed, sake has been making its way onto beverage lists at top non-Japanese restaurants in Europe and the United States, but only a few non-Asian restaurants here, such as Iggy's at Hilton Singapore and BAM!, a tapas bar in Tras Street, offer sake.

Still, the popularity of the rice wine is growing here, what with the offering of more sake workshops, events and more pairing meals, such as Gourmet Japan's recent sake dinner at modern French restaurant Jaan at Swissotel The Stamford last month.

But industry professionals here say more still needs to be done to educate the local market if sake is to become as mainstream as sushi.

Mr Julien Drevon, 29, a sommelier at Waku Ghin who has worked at Guy Savoy in both Paris and its now-defunct Singapore offshoot, says: "Sake here is still a very young market. It is mostly only bars and Japanese restaurants here that serve sake. There is a lack of knowledge as well as a lack of promotion of sake among diners here.

"I hope more fine-dining and non-Japanese restaurants in Singapore will start offering sake on their beverage lists."

rltan@sph.com.sg

Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan