AbonnéFood & Drink

Sake conquering the world

Aymeric Mantoux

By Aymeric Mantoux28 septembre 2023

Sake imports in Europe have more than doubled since 2020, a trend indicating not just popularity but a genuine enthusiasm for the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage. This trend is exemplified by the success of Shichiken, a sake producer.

The sophisticated ritual of sake tasting, such as nihonshu, requires precise heating to 55°C to fully reveal its aromas, a process called kanzake, which brings out the subtleties of the best vintages while accentuating the flaws of the lesser ones (Shutterstock)
Shichiken resonates with the nature of Hakushu to brew sake from the source of life (Shichiken)

An hour before arriving, the steep hills close in around the railway tracks used by the JR express. Everywhere, there are vineyards and rice fields. In the background, higher up, tree-covered mountains stretch towards a sea of fluffy clouds. We are 2 hours south of Tokyo, in the northern part of Yamanashi Prefecture, on the island of Honshu. The Yamanashi Meijo brewery is located at the foot of the Japanese Alps. Founded in 1750 by a brewing family, it uses water from Hakushu, sourced from the nearby melting snow of Mount Kaï Komagate. "Exceptionally pure spring water is the fundamental ingredient, just like rice, for making exceptional sake," explains Tsushima Kitahara, President of Yamanashi Meijo. This water naturally filters through granitic rock and becomes enriched with minerals, making it particularly remarkable for sake. Typically, producers provide the residual polishing rate, which is usually around 40 to 60%.

Low-temperature fermentation of rice produces a refreshing sake. The sake market in Europe has tripled in value in ten years, with record sales expected in 2022 (Sake Shichiken)

With the help of fermentation, the rice starch is liberated, transformed into sugar, and then into alcohol. "We practice long, low-temperature fermentations; it's the signature of our house—sakes as refreshing as spring water," confirms Mr. Kitahara. Both water and rice are essential for crafting nihonshu (Japanese alcohol), along with a touch of divine spirit, as evidenced by the statue of Benzaiten, the goddess of water, welcoming visitors in front of the distillery. Inside, an altar adorned with offerings is intended to ensure the safety of the company's employees. In Japan, tradition is paramount, especially in the world of sake.

Exports of sake on the rise

Alain Ducasse on the left, and Gérard Margeon Executive Chef Sommelier on the right. In the West, sake is becoming increasingly popular with Franco-Japanese restaurants and sommeliers (Shichiken)

At Shichiken, the world champion in its category, it's the 12th generation that is at the helm, partnering with the three-star French chef Alain Ducasse to promote this delicate rice-based beverage worldwide. In fact, when Gerard Margeon, a long-time sommelier with the Alain Ducasse Group, confessed his genuine passion for sake ten years ago, he was considered somewhat unconventional. Today, there is even a distillery producing this alcohol in the Île-de-France region. There's even an annual sake fair in Paris, the largest outside Japan. "Sake is breaking out of a niche market. The enthusiasm of the European public could ultimately make it one of the most important markets on a global scale," asserts Margeon.

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