Ex-footballer Nakata turns sake ambassador

After retiring from his decade-long career in football, Japan's most recognised footballer, Hidetoshi Nakata, kicked off his "second life", right in the country of his birth.

After travelling to 47 prefectures over the last seven years and visiting about 200 of the 1,300 sake breweries in Japan, the 39-year-old launched his own sake label called "N", which is named after him.

While he sheepishly admits to being a "wine lover" back when he lived in Italy and played for Italian football clubs A.S. Roma and Parma, his newfound passion for sake developed through his travels.

Acknowledging that he is "very picky", the former footballer chose the Takagi Shuzo brewery in Yamagata prefecture to make his sake. The brewery - established in 1615 - is headed by its fifteenth master brewer Akitsuna Takagi, 48, with whom Nakata shares the same taste in food and drink.

His sake debuted in 2013 and the second release came out last year. Only 1,000 bottles each of the prized junmai daiginjo sake are made and it pairs well with fatty fish and red meat.

The sake comes in sleek and minimalist black bottles with no label.

"There is no label because the bottle itself is the brand. For normal sake, you need the label because all the bottles are the same shape," says Nakata.

The sake is not available in Japan, as he has no intention of competing with his countrymen in the small market.

It has been launched in more than 10 countries, including France, South Korea and Indonesia. It is currently available at fine dining establishments Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands and La Terre at 11 Upper Circular Road. "N" is priced between $2,000 and $3,000 for a 750ml bottle.

Well-aware of his global appeal - he is often dubbed the David Beckham of Asia - Nakata adds: "It is easy to promote a product under my name. I can reach out to more people and tell them about sake. You can send the farmers here, but people may not care."

He also notes the decline in the sake market in Japan, while it is on the rise all over the world because of the increase in Japanese restaurants.

He says: "In Japan, the beer market is growing, and the young generation don't know about sake. They know more about wine instead. The potential of sake outside of Japan is bigger, but there is a lack of information and education."

To educate sake beginners, he developed an app last year called Sakenomy, which he refers to as a "Google for sake".

The app teaches the basics of sake and allows users to search for sake recommendations.

He also plans to launch special sake glasses that are a cross between a white wine glass and a brandy glass, and make his own line of sparkling sake, which he hopes will rival the quality of fine champagne.

He also does not rule out opening a chain of sake bars worldwide - including in Singapore.

In line with his love for artisanal crafts, he hopes to further his brand by launching a range of homeware and organising a bazaar for Japanese craftsmen to sell their wares.

"Branding and marketing is something I can do," he says. "I do all this because I have the passion, just like for fashion and travel.

"It's not work, it's fun. I don't complain."

• For more information about "N" Sake, e-mail its local distributor Schmidt Vinothek at katelim@schmidtmarketing.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Tipples Ex-footballer Nakata turns sake ambassador'. Print Edition | Subscribe