I'd only tried sake twice before I met Hidetoshi Nakata, and my limited knowledge quickly becomes apparent. “I notice that you're drinking your sake cold,” I say.
“Sake, quality sake, should always be drunk cold,” Nakata jokingly admonishes. “And these glasses are quite small, [a good sake glass] should be between a good white wine glass and a red wine glass.”
He's well practiced in giving this educational spiel to sake newbies, and he delivers it with genuine passion. Nakata may have first become famous for being an international footballer (playing in the top leagues in Italy and the UK as well as in the Olympics), then stayed in the public eye thanks to his life as a globetrotting man-about-town (he regularly sits front row at fashion shows in Paris and Milan), but he now describes himself primarily as a sake maker. It may not seem as glamorous as playing in the Premier League or hobnobbing with Kate Moss at a Louis Vuitton party but, Nakata says, creating his own brand of sake has helped him connect with his roots in a way that he never managed during his years as a professional athlete.
“When I was 21, I went to Italy and spent seven years there,” Nakata explains. “So many friends from outside Japan were always asking me about Japan, so I thought that I needed to learn more about my own country. For the last seven years I've been travelling all over Japan, from south to north.
“In Japan there are 47 prefectures, so I've been going to all of them, meeting craftsmen, farmers, sake makers and visiting shrines and temples, so that I can know about what's happening. I've now visited the last of the 47 prefectures and I've learned a lot about sake culture and Japanese culture as well. I understand the quality of the sake and it's actually very similar to wine.”
One of the sake makers Nakata visited was Takagi Shuzo, a brewery in the Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan that's been making the spirit since 1615. It was here, amid the rice fields and farming villages, that Nakata realised his dream of creating his own brand of sake, which he called N.
“In Japan there are around 1,300 sake makers and I have visited around 250,” he says. “Outside of Japan there are so many Japanese restaurants now, which means that each restaurant has sake, so the market is now worldwide. But if I ask if you know any brands of sake, most likely the answer is no because everything is written in Japanese, so you can't read or remember it. Second, there's no sommelier, so there's nobody you can ask.”
“So the market for sake outside Japan is becoming bigger and bigger but there's no bridge between [international consumers and sake makers], so people outside Japan always think of sake as ‘cold or hot, sweet or dry', but in fact there are more than 13,000 types of sake. But I'm not doing this to make a big business, I don't sell in big numbers, this is very limited — but once people start understanding about sake, the quality and the brand, then they look for another brand and another taste, that's why I made this sake.”
N is produced in extremely limited numbers. In 2013, which was the first year N was produced, only 800 bottles were released. The output then decreased to just 500 bottles in 2014 but, in N's biggest year yet, output increased to just under 1,000 bottles of the 2015 vintage. Despite the small batches, Jebsen Fine Wines, which distributes N in Hong Kong, has seen the public's interest in sake grow since N was launched in 2013.
Nakata's Midas touch on the industry has led to him taking on the unofficial role as a global ambassador for sake. This started back in 2012, when he hosted a pop-up sake bar on the banks of the River Thames in London during the Olympics.
“There were some people who knew about sake but there were a lot of people who didn't,” he says. “It was very interesting to learn how people react and what kind of knowledge they have about sake. I brought some sake makers as well, so they understood the situation of sake. Then after that we did a 2014 version last year in Brazil, for one month. This year we also did a sake bar in Milan during the Expo and during fashion week in Milan.”
“We've also started collaborating with chefs,” Nakata continues. “Last year we did a collaboration with a Japanese chef, and this year in Milan we did a collaboration with an Italian chef because I believe that sake pairing doesn't only go with Japanese cuisine, it can go with Chinese, French, Italian. And when I eat Japanese cuisine, I drink champagne, I drink wines — you just need to know the pairings, so sake can go with other cuisines as well. We wanted to show that to people. In the end, many Italian restaurants started buying sake.”
N may be taking up most of Nakata's time for now, but he's quietly working on a couple of other projects. One of these is his investment in a new bar and lounge, Koko, which has recently opened on Wyndham Street in Hong Kong. The other is his hope to use his star power to support traditional crafts in the same way he has boosted the sake industry. “I'm working a lot with craftsmen,” Nakata says. “As I've been travelling in Japan, I've met so many craftsmen and I believe that — not only in Japan, but around the world — so many crafts are dying. In Japan, Italy, France, China —everywhere they're dying.
“But once you lose them, you never get them back, which means that you're losing your culture. So I'm doing collaborations with craftsmen, artists, architects, designers to make new products and sometimes I do collaborations with brands. Fashion brands especially, are really happy with that, because for them craftsmanship is the key to the product. That's why Hermès and Chanel have bought all the craftsmen houses. Now I'm working with Japanese craftsmen... but I hope to do it worldwide.”
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