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Business Insight

Old Wine in New Bottles

Naoto Shimomura

London is a global hub for the wine trade and hosts one of the world's most prestigious wine fairs. A merchant in the city recently held a tasting event featuring something still unfamiliar to most British drinkers: Japanese sake. However, the popularity of Japanese food means interest is growing.

At the London event, dealers promoted sake with a new pitch. They invited people to try the Japanese drink with western food such as smoked salmon, cheese and even desserts. "It's fantastic," one taste-tester said. "It's an interesting drink in itself. It would be nice to try it with Japanese food that matched, but I think it works with this food as well."

Reactions like that convinced the dealer to schedule more events centered around sake. "In the past, we held about two events like this a month," says Asami Tasaka, UK sales director for World Sake Imports. "Now, it's once a week. This week, we have two. Sometimes, there are three events in a week."

Not only is sake becoming more popular in the UK, it is also being taken more seriously. The International Wine Challenge, a prestigious contest held annually in London, created a category for sake in 2006.

Many people in the West mistakenly think sake is a spirit with high alcohol content, but tasting events are helping set the record straight. As a result, sake is starting to appear on British dinner tables.

Sparkling sake is contributing to that change. Event organizers tell their guests it's becoming popular in Japan and it makes the perfect aperitif for the champagne-loving British.

The International Wine and Spirit Centre in London is spreading the word about sake. Sommeliers and wine importers come to learn about different wines. Last year, the school began offering a sake class.

As part of the course, students visited a sake brewery in Japan. The chief brewer explained the ancient process of turning grains of rice into sake. "Sake was starting to become very popular, especially among wine drinkers," says Ian Harris of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. "Therefore it was logical for us as the world's biggest organization teaching about wine and spirits to look at including sake as one of our qualifications."

Japanese sake has started to permeate the London market. One way promoters can continue to spur its popularity is to help consumers pair it with British food.

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