Japan’s British Sake Ambassador

Japanese-fluent, British National Chris Hughes, a WSET Level 3 certified teacher and certified Kikisakeshi, is the international ambassador for Kurand by Liquor Innovation Co., Ltd. and writer for the English version of Sake Times, published by Japan’s Clear Media. The company’s aim is to promote small, often little known, boutique breweries from all over Japan.

They are committed to bringing the passion that goes into each and every bottle of sake to life and, even looking at the multi-coloured logo, you can see the focus on the diversity of individual sake brewers’ creations. Chris discovered sake eight years ago while working for a Japanese food and drink importer in London, Tazaki Foods. After having bad experiences with a beverage sold as sake, but wasn’t (something he believes a lot of people can relate to), he developed a passion for promoting “true” artisanal sake.


• Give our Sakemaru readers an overview of Kurand by Liquor Innovation's goal? Are you looking to expand outside of Japan?

The business mission of Liquor Innovation is simply, as the company name suggests, to innovate sake. So far, we have done this through events that bring the beverage closer to young people, Kurand and the sister brands, Shugar and Havespi, (the shochu and liqueur versions); and their subscription sake delivery service with over 1000 subscribers in Japan. Actually, that's how it all started out. Every month, customers receive a bottle of sake produced specially together with one of our partner breweries, not too dissimilar from Sakemaru in Singapore.

While we would one day really like to open a KURAND or run the subscription service outside of Japan, there are no immediate plans to. The question or challenge would be to make the system work in countries where the price of sake is 4-5 times higher than that of Japan after all export costs and supplier margins have been added. With the influx of inbound visitors ahead of the Olympics, the real demand is for some kind of EC service, but let's just say that this has been in the pipeline for a while now. Next, we will be opening up a Craft Beer version of KURAND, so watch this space as they say.

• How did a Brit become a self-professed "sake pilgrim" and the international face of a sake store?

After being disappointed initially with bad/misrepresented sake, I was wooed back by a very passionate, charismatic brewer from the North of Japan who came all the way to the UK to give a little study session in my first year in the company. That was my first taste of premium sake and let's just say it blew me away. Four years later and now in a specialist sake sales role, I decided to save up the money and come to Japan to learn more getting some experience working in the industry here.

En route to KURAND, I worked for a brewery as their Tokyo sales rep and various other little projects. I was introduced by a friend to the CEO of Kurand and the rest is history as they say. Let's just say that we shared mutual goals to spread the word about sake and tell the stories of the brewers to more and more foreigners and Japanese.


• Is there a network of gaijin sake drinkers in Japan (besides you and Philip Harper, who are the other prominent gaijin figures in sake?) and do you go back to the UK to apostatize the sake story? How do you suggest non-Japanese appreciate and understand their sake taste profile when they can't even read a label?

There is a little Tokyo expat sake community, but we are so busy most of the time, that we hardly ever meet. except at sake events in Tokyo. The other prominent gaijin figures in sake would be: Rebekah Wilson Lye who works for none other than footballing legend Nakata Hidetoshi; John Gauntner, my mentor and a good friend and the only resident evangelist (the only person I would recognise as one anyway); Timothy Sullivan, brand ambassador for Hakkaisan who is currently in the middle of an internship with the brewery; Daryl Cody Brailsford, a brewer at Watanabe Shuzo in Gifu Prefecture; Justin Potts, a brewer at Kidoizumi Shuzo in Chiba, a good friend and co-editor of the English version of the SAKETIMES. There are probably more, but these are the ones I work with the most.


• Kurand seems to devote a great deal of resources to communications, including social media and a magazine. What is your objective and are you trying to serve as a promotional inspiration to your brewers who often only speak Japanese and are reluctant to distribute too internationally?

It's always been about media, especially as Kurand’s CEO started off in media. Right from the very beginning, it's just been one massive media operation, with PR at little or no cost. The secret to this cost-effective success has been the balance sheet of fans that the company built up through its earlier services such as the subscription and events.

Social media has been a powerful tool to help us to build a customer and fan base. It still is. I think we have one of the most active English language sake-related social media accounts in Japan. Thanks to this strategy, we went from 30 foreign visitors a year to 1000 and currently rank in Trip Advisor's top 10 places to visit in Tokyo. They also leverage crowd funding platforms here in Japan.

Another objective of the media is to of course give the brewers who can't converse in Japanese a voice that transcends borders. We are not quite there yet though. There is much more work to do.


• You've said your PR position is focused on finding a new international audience for sake before the 2020 Olympics. How are things advancing with 3yrs to go?

There is still a lot of work to do. More and more people and companies are getting involved, but if I compare with where my home-country, the UK, was around this time, Japan is still such a long way from the starting line; not just for sake, but in general, in terms of services needed vs services provided. But there is still a chance we can give sake a central role in the proceedings. At least if I have anything to say anyway.

• Tell me more about your Sake Exchange events - why you started them and their importance to your business.

I just thought that giving people a casual space to interact, make new friends and discover sake was the key to opening it up to a new audience. The events are held every month, normally on the second or last Sunday, between 1-4pm. They are quite a light, casual affair. You simply come along and while tasting over 100 different sakes you meet new people. Think international exchange parties but with sake. Recently, we turned them into potluck parties so that people can experience the joy of pairing sake with food.

• Why do you start sake newbies on Jinya Daiginjo from Fukushima Prefecture like Ariga Jozo?

Because it's jaw-droppingly good and completely blows all the misconceptions that people have about sake out of the water. It's good, not only for a super-premium quality sake, but in general. I would cite its balance and elegance as two particular traits that won me over. But don't let me forget to mention its super clean, crisp finish which comes completely out of nowhere.

I think it's the story of sake that really won my heart and this sake has a nice story to tell as well: the brewery's ancestors who lived in a Jinya (manor house) started brewing sake because a Daimyo (feudal leader) asked them to - I mean, how cool is that!? A good story always adds to the flavour of sake I feel.


• What are the other personal top ten favourite sakes, including the two from Miyoshikiku Shuzo in Tokushima Prefecture?

This would be my current KURAND top 10 (note they might not always be available. It depends on the menu and we rotate quite a bit)

1. JINYA Daiginjo (Aruga Jozo, Fukushima)
2. Chikuha Junmai (Kazuma Shuzo, Ishikawa)
3. Kame no O Kurabu (Takeno Shuzo, Kyoto)
4. Kanbai Junmai Ginjo (Kanbai Shuzo, Saitama)
5. Miyoshikiku (Miyoshikiku, Tokushima)
6. Kunpeki Junmai Daiginjo (Kunpei Shuzo, Aichi)
7. Karakuchi Bakka Nonden Janee yo (Ishii Shuzo, Saitama)
8. Tsuchida Yamahai (Tsuchida Shuzo, Gunma)
9. Cat & Dog (Takarayama Shuzo, Niigata)
10. Ando Suigun Tokubetsu Junmai (Saito Shuzo, Aomori)


• What are your customers' top sakes (i.e. your best sellers customers return for)?

This changes as the sake rotates, but I would say that Jinya, Miyoshikiku, and some of the KURAND original products tend to be the most popular.

• Are there any special seasonal / rare types of sake, like freshly pressed shinshu, you advocate your customers try if they can get their hands on it?

I definitely recommend trying autumn sake: Hiyaoroshi. Freshly pressed shinshu is also recommended if you have never tried it before.


• Can you share more about the icons you developed to help guests navigate the roughly 100 kinds of sake you offer? Given sake's long history, how is it that no one had come up with something like it before?

We now operate a simple 4 flavour profile system. Sake is categorised based on how rich, aromatic it is and given one of 4 colours accordingly. We also put whether the sake is sweet or dry on the neck tag. I’m providing the icon chart for your readers’ reference.


• Do you have any food/sake pairing principles you advise?

I’d recommend this sake food pairing back catalogue by Kurand and this one by John Gauntner.

• What do you think needs to be done for sake to be more appreciated outside of Japan and Japanese expat enclaves like Singapore?

While I think the current sake sommelier system I teach is sufficient, better education and more simplicity for consumers is needed. I think focusing more on the stories of each brewery is far better than trying too hard to translate all the jargon on the bottles - half of which even Japanese people can't understand.

Simplifying sake into either premium, super premium, sweet or dry is a good start. I also think marketing around the food pairing thing is another very good strategy. Perhaps we need to make it look cooler as well. I am always telling the brewers I know to put iconic things that foreigners will instantly relate to on the bottles like Samurais for example.

• For sake lovers visiting Tokyo, what bars/restaurants would you recommend?

It would have to be Kurand, of course, and also the JSS Information Centre in Toranomon. JSSIC has lots of different sakes to try for less than a few dollars a glass and you can do this surrounded by sake paraphernalia. I sometimes help with events at the centre.

• Is there anything else you'd like to share with our Sakemaru readers looking to learn more about sake?

Just go in with an open mind and try lots of different styles.

Eventually, even the most vehement sceptic is sure to find something they like. Oh, and if you come to Japan, be sure to visit a sake brewery... like this one: http://tamajiman.co.jp/en/

Visiting a brewery is the only real way to fully immerse yourself in the world of sake.