Ready, set, sake


Delicate, savoury, aromatic and refreshing: sake is just as fascinating and delicious as wine but can be underappreciated. After an off-putting first encounter, Wine Advisor (but sake novice) Joshua Friend explains how he became a convert

Marmite is a timeless British classic. A horribly brilliant, fantastically revolting, brown sticky food paste. I’m a firm believer in the immense power of Marmite and think that everyone should be spreading it on toast, crumpets and crackers (but nothing more): it has acidity, complexity, a silky texture and – yes, it’s even good for you – vitamin B. But why, oh why, am I talking about Marmite? Well…

Not everyone is a fan of this wondrous spread. Those who are firmly “haters” tend to have had an unpleasant experience in their youth, or they haven’t properly given it a go. I had exactly the same opinion of sake.

My first impression of sake was created at the Bull Ring, Birmingham. Fresh off the train from the Cotswolds, my sister and I were tackling our Christmas shopping. Aged 18, being dragged around the womenswear and cosmetics sections wasn’t exactly my idea of fun, so a break – come lunchtime –was welcome.

We chose the most fashionable and sought-after Japanese restaurant in town, Yo!Sushi. Like any eager teenagers, we were lured in by the brightly coloured dishes floating by – the danger of effortlessly indulging in 48 blue, 89 pink and 36 purple plates. But what better to help wash down such authentic Japanese food than sake.

I was a little sceptical of the whole situation, but powered through and gave it a go. I didn’t understand. It didn’t make sense. Who on earth in their right mind would want this warm, savoury drink? It was salty, briny, fire water that burnt the back of my throat. Safe to say, I wasn’t convinced.

But – over the years – my tastes have changed. Tomatoes, mushrooms and mayonnaise all became enjoyable foods and finally, just recently, I was reintroduced to sake. Once an arch nemesis, this intriguing liquor is now firmly a favourite.

Catherine Owen, our in-house sake evangelist, gave me an educational and – for me, at least – life-changing tasting. If you like Manzanilla or Fino style Sherry, it’s not a huge leap to sake – either in flavour profile or alcohol level.

It’s amazing how delicate sake is in comparison to wine – incredibly complex and rich in umami, rather than the more familiar fruit found in wine. The rich volume of amino acids gives you this complex texture and flavour. Tasting just two examples side by side, the differences were astounding. Notes of florals, apple, pear, banana, melon and lychee filled one glass; the other, meanwhile, offered aromas of cereals, yeast, nutty, caramel and fungi.

It’s amazing how much one tasting can change your view. I thought I despised it, but my Yo!Sushi Experience is now far behind me. All it took was a nudge in the right direction. For sake’s sake, give it a try (and maybe Marmite, too) – you might just love it.


  1. Sake is made from fermented rice (not grapes, like wine, or barley, like beer)
  2. There are many different styles, but it is normally colourless, slightly sweet and lightly acidic
  3. Typically it is between 15 and 17 percent alcohol – so somewhere between still wine and fortified styles like Sherry or Port
  4. Polishing the rice (yes, really) and the sort of rice is key to determining the style and quality of the final product
  5. Approximately 80 percent of any bottle of finished sake is water

If you’d like to find out more about sake, we are running an introductory course to the drink on 20th October; find out more here.