The 2017 Customs figures on clearance-based export volume and value of sake was released in February 2018. Export volume increased by 19% compared to the previous year and reached 2.7M cases (at 8.64L per case). The export value increased by 20% and reached $171M US. Both export volume and value have been at a record high for the last 8 years. The number of export regions and countries increased by 1 to 67 and although some countries ceased imports. Export data available to the public goes back as far as 1988 and Croatia and Slovenia imported sake for the first time in these records.
USA remains the primary export partner, showing double digit growth in volume (now 25%) and value (32%). Former fourth largest partner China climbed to third place through significant growth in both volume (175%) and value (184%), bringing each to approximately 10% of the export market.
One factor of the increase in exports is the increase in the number of Japanese restaurants worldwide. From 2015 to 2017 the number of Japanese restaurants has grown by over 30% to to 118,000 (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, October 2017). In Europe, the number grew from 10,550 to 12,200 in this short period, but even this was outpaced by the over 50% increase to 69,300 outlets across Asia. In addition, top (and even some lower-tier) non-Japanese restaurants have begun listing sake.
Oliver Hilton Johnson, sake lecturer and founder of sake importer Tengu Sake, pointed out that distribution companies such as Liberty Wines and also Enotria&Coe which specialize in wine and spirits have started listing sake among their portfolio, further contributing to the export increase.
Mirai Taguchi who works at Brooklyn NY’s famed “Silver Rice” sushi restaurant told Sake Experience Japan “The number of people who order our house sake (warm) is becoming bigger. Additionally the number of people who have a deep interest in sake has increased. And surprisingly I even sometimes meet those [here in Brooklyn] who collect ”cup sake” [glasses] – single-serve sake that comes in its own glass – because of its cute packaging. I feel the diversity of sake in terms of the way of enjoying it is spreading.”
SEJ also spoke with Guillermo Cruz, head sommelier at Mugaritz. (Spain increased importing volume by 87% in 2017. He said that sake has been an unknown beverage until recently, even though Spain celebrated the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Japan in 2017. “In the last couple of years, the efforts of the producers and the Japanese Government have had great results and nowadays it is easier to have access to high-quality sakes that were almost impossible to purchase. Both the Japanese effort and an increase of the curiosity around Japanese culture have been crucial for the growth of the consumption numbers.”He added “Sake is liquid silk and it is a way to distill the producers’ knowledge, their experience, their values and even their soul. All those ideas in a bottle. Sake is culture and an open book to Japanese way of thinking.”
Netherlands-based sake afficionado Bart Hanselaar remembers disliking his first sake (he even remembers the brand) because he hadn’t acquired a taste for it. However, his dissatisfaction didn’t last long. “Many years later I bought another bottle of a different brand (can’t remember which) which I found at an Asian supermarket and that one appealed more to my liking. After that bottle I bought every different brand the supermarket had on offer.” Encountering the Japanese community in Dusseldorf (Germany) “started my real love for sake and put me on a mission to drink as many different types and brands of sakes I could find.” He has now tried well over 100 sakes.
Another major support of the sake export increase has been the logistical advancements which make high-quality, small batch sake exports possible. To provide international consumers access to the same quality sake as in Japan, JF Hillebrand Japan commenced the LCL reefer container service in July 2015 in order to provide opportunities for quality on arrival to match that of Japan. Assistant Manager of Sales, Eiki Tabata told us “We have conducted regular shipping to Hong Kong once a month and to Paris every six weeks. In the future, we would like to expand the service to US and Singapore where delivery of premium sake requires reefer transport”.
Delivering the attractive characteristics of sake to the world needs advocates to tell the regional characteristics and each brewery’s own story, history and techniques. At the same time, it is essential to develop the information in such a way that it meets the expectation of international consumers. Fortunately, education centers (as well as importers, retailers and logistics) have been ready.
Once regional characteristics are better understood internationally, sake breweries which highlight the rationality will attract more attention. Additionally researchers continue to investigate the terroir (rationality), which will provide useful information for growers and brewers in their pursuit for local perfection.
Thanks to easy access to diverse, high quality sake, the phase where sake is consumed only with Japanese meals in restaurants is well and truly over. Now sake is starting to be enjoyed internationally with local foods or consumed by itself, even in the home. We strongly believe that different types of sake will be enjoyed in more counties according to local customs in 2018.