When sommelier Erika Haigh opened the UK’s first independent sake bar, in London’s West End in 2019, passersby would wander in and try to order milkshakes, bewildered by the unfamiliar drink advertised in the window.

“Today, that confusion has largely disappeared,” said Haigh, who has since opened Mai Sake, a shop offering tasting events and meals. “You can now go on a sake bar crawl across London, and you’ll find it featured on the beverage lists of many restaurants – including non-Japanese establishments.”

The Japanese fermented rice drink, typically about 15% ABV, is becoming increasingly important on the international drinks market. Exports have grown virtually every year for the past 13 years and the export market in 2023 was 1.8 times larger than in 2019, with sales totalling ¥41.1bn (£211m).

China and the US are the biggest consumers of sake, but the UK market is growing. Sake is no longer drunk just for courage at karaoke clubs, but sold in specialist shops and sophisticated bars. Waitrose reported searches for sake on its website have increased 241% year on year, while searches for plum sake were also up 100% on 2023. Even Wagamama – one of the first restaurants to offer the drink nationwide – has just added a sparkling sake to its list.

Berry Bros & Rudd, the UK’s oldest wine merchant, has started selling sake “en primeur”, a method favoured by collectors – a chance to buy wine before it is bottled and typically for a good price. The practice was started in Bordeaux and is associated with French and Italian vintages, so to see sake offered for sale this way indicates a big change in perception in the UK.

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