A Heavenly Evening by the River

Friday 7th October 2022 saw us host our fifth Annual Grand Sake Tasting. On a warm and dry autumn evening, eager attendees made their way, by train, tube, bus – even boat – to the beautiful, but slightly unorthodox venue for drinking: St Mary’s Church in Putney, on the south bank of the Thames, where over a hundred people filled the hall.

We told ourselves that, as sake is considered a sacred drink in Japan, we weren’t being too irreverent by tasting in the heavenly surroundings of this magnificent church hall. There may not have been much religious fervour, but there was plenty of enthusiasm for “the drink of the gods”.

We were delighted to have with us Mr Yasuhiro Matsuda, Minister of Finance from the Japanese Embassy, who delivered a few words of welcome. Special guest from Japan was master brewer Kuno Kuheiji, fifteenth generation head of Kuheiji Banjo Jozo Co in Nagoya. Sponsored by Japan Centre, who are now exclusively bringing his sakes to the UK market, Kuheiji-san was the star of the night. Alongside the main hall Kuheiji-san gave a fascinating lecture on the history of his family’s brewery (established in 1647); his philosophy and unique brewing methods. And plenty of his sake was available to taste throughout the night

“The passion with which Kuheiji speaks was spectacular – he clearly believes in his sake, and loves life too” said one guest. It was a real honour to meet this man who is so full of life and enthusiasm – clearly evident in the way he led the traditional nakajime ceremony to close the evening.

Amongst the exhibitors’ tables I was delighted to see Yoigokochi’s range of sakes, many produced using medieval and ancient methods. We did a tasting of these sakes back in 2011, but nothing since, so I am happy that Raeburn Fine Wines is now representing them here in the UK.

Other memorable products included Hatozaki Whisky, and 135 East Hyogo Dry Gin – both produced by the Yonezawa family who are well known for their Akashi Tai sake. We hope this may lead to some off shoot tastings of Japanese spirits.

A favourite with many was Takara’s matcha-flavoured shochu, presented by Tazaki Foods “I can’t wait to pour this over ice cream” was one comment.

Oliver Hilton-Johnson from Tengu Sake worked non-stop, as usual, heating sake and explaining his offerings to an eager crowd. There were some undiscovered gems in Monten and Otone Shuzo; sakes from France’s Wakaze; from London’s Kanpai; French influence from Tanaka 1789 X Chartier; a taste of Zaku from Shimizu Seizaburo Shoten (the sake we’ll be serving at our December Dinner); VSF and H.I.S Japan were both represented, and Sake Shoten – who aim to introduce sake through smaller bottles – were showing for the first time. We would also like to congratulate Sake Shoten’s Chris Ashton for becoming the UK’s newest Sake Samurai, and who sent in some of his sakes for tasting although he could not attend himself.

A second masterclass, on sake-based cocktails, was run by Samuel Boulton, who owns Shibuya Underground, a Birmingham bar specialising in sake and Japanese-influenced cocktails. In the centre of the room, throughout the evening, was the Discovery Table with free pours on over thirty different sakes. Food bowls, prepared by the lovely Issa from Putney Pantry, the café alongside the hall, were delicious as usual. A big Thank You to the staff there, especially Monika, who worked uncomplainingly throughout the night.

Thanks also to non-sake exhibitors Clearspring; Enshu Ltd and Imahiko ceramics – loyal supporters of the British Sake Association.

We are immensely grateful to all our exhibitors, who generously gave of their time and products and, without whom the evening would not have been the success it was. There was lots of chatter, many people catching up with old friends, and a large range of different sakes to taste, with plenty of experts on hand to explain to those new to sake. As someone said of the best things of the night: “The variety of different sakes all available to try in an easy-going friendly environment; and meeting many people who are both enthusiastic and knowledgeable about sake”.

“Amazing event. I had a great time and so did the three people who came with me- we’ll be back again with an even bigger group I’m sure.”

Our exhibitors generously donated sumptuous raffle prizes, and our guests gave generously – raising over £400 for our regular charities, Fukushima and Drinks Trust.

Many thanks to our official photographer, Akemi Yokoyama, and Carol Klaasen for the photos reproduced here.

© Shirley Booth 2022

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