International Sake Day Part I: Hedonism

The best occasions deserve multiple celebrations. Part I is covered below, while Part II at Matsuri is covered next.

Not long after the first encounter, I found myself skipping back down the same path to happiness and Hedonism. My mission: to warm up for International Sake Day.

To avoid repetition, I defer uninitiated readers to my quick explanation of International Sake Day here, but suffice it to say that it wouldn’t be wrong to think of 1st October as New Year’s Day in the Sake world.

Continuing the analogy, Hedonism was celebrating New Year’s Eve, with a very special edition of expert Honami Matsumoto‘s Sake pairing masterclasses.

House of Sake Honami

Honami Matusmoto, Founder of House of Sake: www.houseofsake.co.uk. House of Sake is the official Sake consultant to Hedonism Wines.

Titled  The Terroir of Yamagata Prefecture & Dewazakura Brewery, the event was extra special as Honami would be joined by 5th generation brewers Akari & Shotaro Nakano of Dewazakura brewery, and the Sake would be paired with cuisine from delicious Kikuchi restaurant. Not only would this be an opportunity to hear about Sake straight from the source, but it would also be an opportunity to enjoy the natural affinity between Japanese food and sake.


We eased into the tasting with a sparkling, cloudy, Dewazakura Tobiroku Sake. A passion for bubbles, I’ve noticed, is one of those things that transcends borders and language barriers. The creamy mouthfeel, rich rice aroma and subtly sweet taste always draw me back to this sparkling number in particular.



Left to right: Oka Ginjo, Tobiroku Cloudy Sake

With a bit of alcohol now coursing merrily through the system, guests began to anticipate what was in store. As Akari and Shotaro talked knowledgeably about the origins of Sake, the brewery itself and the raw ingredients that go into making Sake, Honami led us through the food pairing.

Left to right: Oka Ginjo, Dewasansan, Omachi, Ichiro, Izumi Judan Ginjo, Yuki Man Man

Left to right: Oka Ginjo, Dewasansan, Omachi, Ichiro, Izumi Judan Ginjo, Yuki Man Man

Sake number one was of course Dewazakura’s signature Sake and the winner of the IWC 2015 Ginjo category. Romantically named “Cherry Bouquet – Oka Ginjo”, you can imagine the delicacy of the nose, a beautiful efflorescence of cherry and peach flavours flowering the glass. This characteristic is typical of Ginjo Sake, a grade of premium Sake previously only made for competitions. Dewazakura’s innovation was to begin releasing it at an affordable price to the mass market, effectively triggering one of the most creative periods in the history of Sake making. Our entry dish was appropriately light, taking on the form of cured flounder sashimi. Having never tried cured sashimi before, I was curious to discover that pickling the fish overnight has the effect of producing a tighter, firmer flesh. While many Ginjos could have overpowered such a delicate fish, the Oka Ginjo at no point intruded, owing to the dominance of floral over fruity notes, and its shorter finish.


Our next dish was another typically Japanese offering – fried pork cutlets, with a mouth-watering salted plum paste and dried shiso. More robust in its flavour, this required a savoury Sake to handle the umami – in this case a Junmai Ginjo made from Dewasansan rice, aptly named Dewazakura Dewasansan. Dewasansan rice is grown in Yamagata prefecture where Dewazakura is located, and is so called as “Dewa” is the archaic word for Yamagata, where there are thirty-three or “San San” mountains. This type of rice typically produces mellow, slightly herbaceous tasting sake. In this case, the Junmai Ginjo had some sweet and fruity tones, nicely bringing out the saltiness of the pork dish and the plum paste.


For the third course our familiar friend sashimi made its second appearance, this time in the form of luscious pink salmon. Dewazakura’s Omachi Junmai Ginjo was the choice Sake for this dish, as it was able to cut through the oiliness of this fattier fish. Here “Omachi” refers to the rice strain used for brewing the Sake, which is also the oldest indigenous rice strain to Japan. The thing about Sake made from Omachi rice is that it tends also to have a wilder, deeper flavour; a flavour that has garnered its own loyal following of “Omachists”, or diehard Omachi Sake drinkers.


By this stage we had experienced three knockout food and Sake pairings, and were well warmed up for the three perhaps more unique choices to follow. The fourth pairing was all about Dewazakura’s 2008 champion sake, Ichiro Junmai Daiginjo. “Ichiro” means one straight road, so called as a symbol of Dewazakura’s dedication to focus on Ginjo making. Slightly thicker and more lingering, the sweetness tinged with a hint of spiciness was a perfect partner to the white miso chicken skewers. Juicy, lip-smacking food that hugs you back in the darker months.


And then the dish that foreigners will forever associate with the Land of the Rising Sun: sushi. Kikuchi sushi rolls are something else – generously filled rolls of seven colours, ingredients that glistened with freshness. Spinach, eel, salmon, tuna, squid, omelette, cherry blossom pickles represented the seven colours of the rainbow, and came served with Kikuchi’s special Tosa soy sauce, a smoky and complex number. “Tenth degree” or Dewazakura Izumi Judan Ginjo, was the Sake chosen for this dish. A Sake fit for Bond, this is possibly one of the driest Sakes you might easily come across. Also known as the “Martini lovers’ Sake”, the crisp flavour and Tanqueray aromatics cut perfectly through the fatty flavour of the Rainbow roll and had a pleasant, palate cleansing effect.


The final course was the simplest, and yet my favourite dish of the evening.

Seasonal vegetables, gently prepared in dashi and light soy, absolutely non-fussy. A nod from the chef to Nature, as if to say, “taste what Nature did, I cannot do any better!” Sincerely prepared and thoughtfully presented kabocha, aubergine, yam and shishito – autumnal, with the earthy flavour that comes off ingredients which have been retrieved just moments ago. The Sake choice for our final dish was intriguing, bearing the artistic name – “Snow country”, or Yuki Man Man. The choice was intriguing, as Daiginjo tends to enjoyed for its freshness, whereas Yuki had five years of age under its belt at 5 below zero Celsius. In essence, maturation had the effect of turning what would have originally been a vividly fruity brew into something darker, more muted and caramel. With the age came a silky smoothness. Overall, aged sake can be hard to pair with Japanese food, but the simplicity of the vegetable dish let the flavours of the Sake flow over, and the overall effect was a mouthful of delicious autumn flavours.


From sparkling to still, fresh to aged, dry to sweet – it felt like we had covered a lot of ground both in terms of knowledge and in terms of the flavour spectrum in one evening. Dewazakura is a brewery that is close to my heart, due to their enthusiastic support of a ball I helped organise a year ago. Since then, the young couple have gone on to win several awards, most recently the coveted title of 2016 IWC Champion Sake with Dewanosato, and the brewery itself won IWC 2016 sake brewery of the year. With young blood at its vanguard, the future of the Sake world is bright – and certainly not lacking in flavour!







Honami holds frequent tasting classes at Hedonism. Stay appraised of future tastings here.


All Sakes mentioned in this article are available to purchase at Hedonism Wines:

Dobiroku Sparkling Sake

Oka Ginjo

Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo

Omachi Junmai Ginjo

Ichiro Junmai Daiginjo

Dewazakura Izumi Judan Ginjo

Yuki Man Man Daiginjo 5 Years Matured

All by Dewazakura Shuzo

Eat Your Sake

It’s dinnertime; you are enjoying the company of some close friends in your local haunt. Habitually, you reach for the wine list to scout out the perfect liquid companion to your evening meal. Shall you have white tonight, or will it be red? Or will you, like the growing numbers of culturally curious diners across the world opt for something else entirely? As the popularity of sake grows, and as sake is slowly introduced to drinks lists across the global dining scene, we have begun to witness diners becoming more alcoholically intrepid.

Diners are learning to “Eat with Sake”, not only at Japanese restaurants, but also at Pan Asian, Indian and even Michelin establishments.

Adam Frosh - Third Place

Adam Frosh, finalist

Now that we have learned how to “Eat with Sake”, master brewers Gekkeikan are encouraging consumers to go one step further. In conjunction with the Japan Centre, Gekkeikan hosted its first sake themed cooking competition, introducing us to the concept of “Sake to Eat”.

Cooking with sake has long been part of the Japanese home cook’s repertoire and it is well known that sake’s rich umami naturally complements the equally umami rich ingredients of Japanese cuisine – mushrooms, kombu, dashi, natto. Umami, however, is not confined to Japanese food alone and with this inaugural sake themed competition, Gekkeikan hoped to inspire a new generation of global chefs to use sake more creatively at mealtimes.

Gekkeikan Award winning lamb shank

Gekkeikan Award winning lamb shank

The rules of the competition were simple: entrants needed to devise two sake inspired dishes – one savoury and one sweet – which a panel of well-respected judges would assess along the following dimensions:

1)  Taste, flavour and texture

2)  Presentation

3)  Presence of aroma and/or flavour of sake

After whittling down the entries to a handful of finalists, our experienced panel set about deciding the overall winner during a final cook off on Sunday 24 January, at Japan Centre’s newly opened udon-ya Ichiryu on New Oxford Street.

Gekkeikan masters of cooking

Judges in action

After a morning of cooking, tasting and discussion, the winner was elected. A raft of outstanding dishes were presented, each demonstrating creative use of sake as a cooking ingredient, but it was the Drunken Hainanese Chicken Rice and the vibrant Strawberry Sake mousse with White Chocolate Shell that won us over. In these two dishes, the sake flavour shone through, lifting, rather than being subsumed by, the other flavours.

Drunken Chicken Rice

Winner Natasha Cohen’s Main Dish, Drunken Hainanese chicken rice


Winner Natasha Cohen's Dessert

Winner Natasha Cohen’s Dessert, Strawberry sake mousse with white chocolate shell

The winner Natasha Cohen, a copywriter from London, was awarded an exclusive one week trip to Japan including a two day hands on training course at the Gekkeikan Sake School in Kyoto Fushimi, courtesy of Gekkeikan.

Natasha Cohen

Natasha Cohen

Despite there being only one winner of the overall competition, the event itself was an undeniable victory for sake. And as is traditionally the case for celebratory occasions, attendants and judges participated in the time-old tradition of kagami-biraki, toasting the day with the suitably festive Gekkeikan Kinpaku Honjozo (gold flake sake). Kagami-biraki, or sake barrel breaking, traditionally represents ‘breaking’ open the door to fortune and prosperity; and indeed initiatives such like this open the door on a new chapter for sake.  Let us look forward to a new crop of innovative, flavoursome sake themed recipes and the continued re-interpretation of sake’s role at the dinner table in years to come.

kinpaku sake

Kinpaku sake, a sake shot through with gold flakes, traditionally enjoyed on celebratory occasions.

Kagami biraki

Our sincere thanks to the judging panel:

Toshihiko Sakaguchi – Director General, JETRO London

Rie Yoshitake – Sake Consultant, Sake Samurai

Anna Greenhous – Sake Journalist, Harpers

Yukimasa Noda – GM International Division, Gekkeikan Sake Brewery

Kanji Furukawa – Chief Executive Chef, SHORYU & ICHIRYU


Other shortlisted dishes:

Second place – Mutsumi Kramer.

Savoury Dish: Sake Souffle Quiche with Fig & Pine Nuts

Sweet Dish: Rosey Sake Jelly with Raspberry Sauce.

Mutsumi was awarded a two days certified sake sommelier course at the Sake Sommelier Academy.


Third place – Adam Frosh.

Savoury Dish: Fillet Beef Tartare in Sake

Sweet Dish: Sake Cheesecake Brulee with Sake & Plum Aioli

Adam was awarded a case of Gekkeikan Special Edition Sake from Kyoto with a premium Horin Riedel Glass Set.

Akashi-tai sake

Meet the Brewery: Akashi-Tai

One of the most tragic occurrences in Sake history is the decline in breweries over the years.

In between 1940 and 2014, an astonishing 4,500 breweries shut their doors to the public, leaving just a fraction –  c. 1,500 – in operation. Today the trend continues its downward march (Japan’s National Tax Agency).

Nevertheless, to get to know every single one of the remaining breweries would still require some work, and a substantially deep purse. But isn’t that one of the joys of being a little obsessed by something? The prospect of so much terrain still yet to discover.

There is a bit of method to the madness of exploration though. Faced with a sea of choice, one is drawn towards those breweries with a story, an element of soft emotionality that can be latched onto.

“That is the brewery with the Cornish toji (master brewer),” for example, or “that is the one which polishes its rice grains into diamond shapes…” (allegedly there is one).

And yet, it is not always easy to find this kind of information about Sake breweries. I think this has a lot to do with an Asian cultural bent towards modesty, and a fundamentally different way of appreciating alcoholic beverages in comparison to the West.

Perhaps another contributory factor to the lack of information is the lack of translated material. Sake labels are notoriously indecipherable and what marketing information there is is often written in Japanese. In time this too will change, as Sake exports continue to pick up pace.

Anyway, I wanted to introduce some of my own favourite breweries. “Favourite”, not “best”, or “most expensive”, most “cachet”. “Favourite”, because they are breweries with stories that I enjoyed getting to know.

This week, Akashi-Tai.

What does Akashi-Tai mean?

“Tai” is the Japanese word for Red Sea Bream and “Akashi” is the name of one of Western Japan’s major fishing villages. The brewery is therefore named after the red sea bream of Akashi, which are renowned throughout Japan for their taste.

Symbolically, tai in Japan represents good luck, as it rhymes with omedetai, or “Congratulations”.  It is often eaten at “medetai” (congratulatory) occasions, such as weddings and family gatherings.


Akashi-Tai’s logo, a playful sea bream coiled belly up

Date founded: 1886

Production: 73,000l per year, or roughly 400 koku.

Around 73% of Japanese breweries produce annual outputs of <500 koku, which is considered small. Akashi-Tai is therefore firmly at the bijou end of the spectrum.


A full range of Sake is produced at Akashi-Tai, including some of the newer Sake styles, such as sparkling Sake and Sake liqueur.

At every event at which I have seen Akashi-Tai served, the unanimous favourite has always been the umeshu, or plum Sake liqueur:

Shiraume (“White Plum”) Umeshu

A plummy liqueur. Akashi-Tai’s umeshu is made by preserving ume in high quality sake (ginjo sake), rather than distilled alcohol (as is the case with lesser umeshu’s).

Ume are soft stone fruit similar to plums and apricots and traditionally used in Chinese medicine for their supposed health benefits. Therefore, umeshu has also traditionally been seen to possess medicinal qualities  – a bit like Mint Julep in the West!

All in all, a rich, velvety drink that could work well with autumn fruit, cheese and certainly with Mince pies.

Why not.


The brewery is also known for a second Sake, which I have not yet had the pleasure of trying:

Genmai Aged Sake

Released in 2005. This beverage is special for two reasons:

  1. It is Japan’s first brown rice Sake (usually Sake is made from polished rice i.e. white rice), and
  2. It is aged for a number of years before consumption.

Hard also to not love the bottle design, redolent of a Glenrothes Select Reserve.

genmai aged sake

What’s next?

When Mr Yonezawa, President of Akashi-Tai, was asked about his next big development, he stated that focus is shifting from producing Sake that goes with food, to that which can “shine on its own”.

After attending last Wednesday’s drinks reception at Sake no Hana, I would say that this future vision is already within reaching distance. In the downstairs bar, a crowd of Fintech CEOs performed a very traditional Kagami-biraki with Akashi-Tai Sake. Kagami-biraki (“opening the lid”) is where the lid of a sake barrel is broken with a wooden mallet, and guests are served with the sake stored within. The round lid symbolises harmony , so breaking the lid represents opening the door to harmony and prosperity.

And really, nothing makes me happier than seeing Sake being enjoyed as the drink of choice in the 21st century.

Looking to try some Akashi-Tai? 

Where to drink Akashi-Tai Sake in London:

Sake no Hana



The Nightjar



The nightjar



Where to buy Akashi-tai sake in London:


Odd bin

Whiskey exchange



The Good wine shop

Harvey Nichols

Fortnum & Mason



Lea and Sandmann

Whole Foods Market




akashi tai

Akashi-tai sake