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Sake features strongly in top restaurants

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The export volume of sake has increased for 7 consecutive years. In 1988, 760,000 cases (1 case = 8.84L) were exported to 49 countries, valued at ¥2, 200 million (US$20 million). In 2016, exports reached 2.2 million cases to 66 countries, valued at ¥15.5 billion (US$140 million), a trebling of volume (and a 7-fold value increase) in less than 30 years.

One of the reasons for this increase in volume is the global prevalence of Japanese food culture. Since Japanese food was registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage item in 2013, this boom has accelerated. In 2013, the number of Japanese restaurants was 55,000 globally, but it surged 89,000 in 2015. And, of course, most of these restaurants include at least one kind of sake on their menu.

In addition, there has been an increase in the number of sommeliers, chefs and importers who know about sake because of the development of sake education centers. 

The common understanding among top restaurants is that sake is highly suitable for food pairing: the diversity in terms of taste ensures there is a sake for just about everything. Like wine, sake variety and taste is based on the history and passion of producers. Increased diversity will only attract more consumers.

Top sommeliers of world-renowned restaurants Mugaritz and noma and of domestically prominent Fugetsuro were kind enough to grant interviews to Sake Experience Japan.

#1. Mugaritz
Mugaritz is frequently listed among the top 10 restaurants in the World Top 50 Restaurant list published by William Reed. Chef Mr Andoni Luis Aduriz visited Japan in 2017 to give classes to Ishikawa high school students.The culinary philosophy of Mugaritz is very profound, focusing on the chef’ passion and also cultural background. The menu changes with the seasons, so there is no one dish for which Mugaritz is best known.

Mr Guillermo Cruz, head sommelier of Mugaritz, was selected as the best sommelier in Spain in 2014 and an acknowledged leader in the Spanish Sommelier Society. He has been head sommelier of Mugaritz for 6 years, responsible not only for the wine list, but for all beverages. His passion and pride for his work is evident of his “time off” when Mugaritz was closed from January to April in 2017, he traveled around 83,000 km (over double the circumference of the earth) on a quest for the very best.

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He said that to him, the attractive characteristic of sake is its versatility – it can pair with wide variety of food of many styles. Currently Mugaritz carries 50 different types of sake on the menu and, like wine, offers sake to customers based on the idea of food and sake pairing. In 2017, Mugaritz also started using sake in the dishes, for example garnishing fish with “cloudy sake” sediment. More daringly, the menu has included fermented black rice (fermented using koji, then caramelized to black) with koshu (aged sake).

This pairing idea is common in Japan. He concluded that sake has a similar outlook/world view to wine, but the ingredient is rice which is something very special, so they would like to share this specialty with guests.

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#2.noma

noma is, of course, one of the best restaurants in the world, keenly focusing on Scandinavian food, creatively expressed. Diners are often surprised to see the components used in a novel way, such as raw flowers in meat and fish dishes. (noma launched a wildly successful pop-up restaurant with in Tokyo in 2015.)

noma carries not only the standard Junmai and Junmai-Dai-Ginjo categories, but also the much rarer red sake. Mr Lars Korby, sommelier, spoke to us about his approach to sake at noma. For him, one of the most attractive characteristics of sake is the unique texture, although the extraordinary depth of umami in some quality sake varieties also appeals.

Currently he puts sake in the wine list and offers sake to guests if he thinks that the pairing will be even more preferable than other beverages such as wine. He also recommends sake to pair with umami-driven food, such as those using mushroom or konbu, and offers slightly warm aged sake to pair with grain based dishes or glazed meats.

The diversity of sake will be practically unlimited if offered in different temperatures, as noma does.

#3Fugetsuro

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Fugetsuro is an authentic Japanese restaurant offering traditional Japanese food, called “kaiseki-ryori”(7-8 different dishes such as seasonal vegetables, sashimi and grilled fish). It is housed in the grounds of the last Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa who moved to Fugetsuro when he retired as Shogun (1872 -1892). Although the original building was destroyed in World War II, the current building is set within the original garden and retains its historical atmosphere.

Although less renowned internationally than noma and Mugaritz, Fugetsuro is extremely well-known within Japan. Despite its locale in downtown Shizuoka, the garden is both extensive and exquisite. Combined with the exceptional cuisine and sake offerings, it is not surprising that Fugetsuro was selected as a venue for the Japanese Emperor and Empress to host Spain’s  King Felipe VI and Queen Latizia on their state visit in 2017.Fugetsuro sommelier Mr Yosuke Haneda spoke to us of the restaurant’s approach to hospitality.In Fugetsuro, 60-70% of the ingredients are Shizuoka local. The restaurant carries over 100 items from all 28 Shizuoka prefecture sake breweries. When Mr Haneda commenced patronizing all local breweries 16 years ago, he met a lot of resistance. At that time, around 80% of Shizuoka sake was exported to other parts of Japan.

Mr Haneda told us that sake from Shizuoka is known for its refreshing sweetness and clean aftertaste with pleasant acidity, meaning it can pair well with a broad range of foods and also enhance umami flavors.

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Fugetsuro offers “seasonal sake”  in accordance with seasonal cuisine.The materials and taste of food change every season, so the sake is changed accordingly, expanding the opportunity to enjoy sake with food. Mr Haneda especially likes sake’s pairing suitability and the diversity of taste at different temperatures. He went on to say that sake has an exceptional suitability for fish dishes, such as sashimi. It is never easy to remove this fishiness by any other alcohol. The water used in sake production is extremely closely monitored for iron levels, and even small amounts make sake production untenable. This lack of iron (especially when compared with wine and beer), enables the sake to overcome, rather than enhance, the fish flavors.

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It has been interesting that sake is regarded at high-end restaurants as food-friendly for a variety of cuisine. Outside of Japan, most people still regard sake as a spirit, to be consumed warm, missing some of the greatest appeal.However we foresee that top restaurants’ interest in sake will soon expand to second-tier restaurants by the simple addition of sake to the wine menu. After that, it is only a matter of time before the broader appeal of sake will prevail.

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