Why isn’t sake more popular?

<span>Cold comfort: In the west, it’s widely assumed that sake should be served warm, but finer sakes are traditionally served cool or cold.</span><span>Photograph: LAW Ho Ming/Getty Images</span>
Cold comfort: In the west, it’s widely assumed that sake should be served warm, but finer sakes are traditionally served cool or cold.Photograph: LAW Ho Ming/Getty Images

Given how popular Japanese food is now, it’s kind of surprising that sake hasn’t taken off in tandem. But it’s also understandable, seeing as this is not exactly the easiest drink to get your head around: there’s the complex classification, and the fact that, until relatively recently, the labels have tended to be in Japanese. There’s also confusion over what temperature to serve it at (the general impression is that it’s served warm, but finer sakes are traditionally served cool or cold). The supermarkets, which are often helpful in popularising new drinks such as kombucha, haven’t come on board, either. Look up sake on the Asda website, for example, and you get 752 results for cake. Even Waitrose, which has an extensive range of Japanese food, stocks more Japanese gin and whisky than sake – and then only the not-especially-interesting Sawanotsuru (14.5%) at £13.

But there’s a lot to like about sake. For one thing, it’s smoother and less sharp than many white wines. Delicately sweet, but also savoury, it’s versatile with food, too, and not just with sushi (the Japanese wouldn’t traditionally serve it with rice). Being rich in umami, it’s also surprisingly good with steak and cheese.

As you may know, sake is brewed from rice and koji, which is cooked rice inoculated with a culture called Aspergillus oryzae that changes the rice into fermentable sugars. The more of the rice’s outer coating that is removed in the production process, the better the sake’s quality. . You probably won’t get your head around all the sake categories, but here are a couple of terms to remember. Higher-quality sakes are generally labelled ginjo and daiginjo, while junmai indicates that the sake has been made without added alcohol.

Fortunately, many sake breweries are beginning to make life easier for us by describing their products in English. Outfits such as the widely available and reasonably priced Akashi-Tai and Heavensake have easy-to-understand labels and are making sake with lower levels of alcohol, which makes them more suitable for drinking with a meal.

Not all sake is made in Japan, either – it’s produced in, among other places, France and Canada, and even in the UK, in London and Cambridge (check out the Sparkling Sake Co’s Awa). Champagne makers such as Régis Camus and Richard Geoffroy, the former chef-de-cave of Dom Pérignon, are also getting in on the act. In fact, these outsiders may be just what sake needs to demystify this versatile and appealing drink. (If you want to know more, read the authoritative Sake and the Wines of Japan, by Anthony Rose, a wine writer who has become a fervent sake devotee.)

Five sakes to try

Akashi-Tai Junmai Ginjo Sparkling Sake £15.06 (300ml) Master of Malt, £15.25 (300ml) EW Wines, £16.50 The Whisky Exchange, 7%. Brilliant, light, low-alcohol aperitif. Drink with tempura or fish and chips.

Kanpai Junmai Ginjo £21 (375ml), 14.5%. Made in Bermondsey, in a richer, weightier style with a faint taste of clotted cream. Try with roast chicken or even rare steak.

Heavensake Junmai 12 Sake £30 (720ml) Threshers, £33 Averys and Laithwaites, 12%. Smooth, dry, with a touch of salted caramel. A collaboration with Régis Camus of champagne Piper-Heidsieck. Perfect with a mushroom risotto.

Tatenokawa Shield Soube Wase Junmai Daiginjo £42 Tengu Sake, 15%. Made with a unique heirloom strain of rice, this is a fabulously complex and delicious – delicate yet intense. Try with grilled fish or scallops.

Dassai 39 Junmai Daiginjo £21.99 (300ml) London Sake Company, £40 (720ml) Hedonism Wines, 16%. Delicately sweet, creamy, almost like a piña colada. “If you’ve never had sake before, this could be your epiphany moment,” says Oliver Hilton-Johnson of importer Tengu Sake. Try it with burrata.