Over the years, the sake scene in the UK has got stronger, with most activity concentrated in London. This progress is gradually expanding out from the capital and Sam Boulton is one of the key movers.
The owner of Birmingham sake bar, Shibuya Underground, Boulton is keen to bring more awareness to nihonshu, shochu and awamori to UK consumers. He’s also a man after my own heart by being interested in a variety of obscure drinks that deserve more recognition.
Thanks for your time Sam and always great to talk to another sake geek. What was your first experience with sake and has your perception of it changed over time?
Thanks for having me. I don’t actually remember the first time I tried sake. But I do remember the first time I tried one I really enjoyed and it was Keigetsu Yuzu Sake, a blend of sake and yuzu juice. This was given to me by Marie Cheong Thong (the chair of the British Sake Association).
I found it to be subtle and something you could sip, which opened the gateway for me. The next sake I tried and enjoyed was the Akashi Tai daiginjo.
What are some of your favourite styles of sake and are there any interesting brands that stand out to you right now?
My taste is every changing as I’m always looking to learn more. I’m not particularly into the ultra-clean Tanrei Karakuchi dry styles you see from Niigata, but I do like my sake with a punch.
Namazake is always a go-to and I’ve been finding bodaimoto style sake great. I’d also recommend Gozenshu from Tsuji Honten.
You’ve recently launched Shibuya Underground in Birmingham and the bar itself looks awesome. What is the story behind the concept and how did you want to integrate it into the local hospitality scene?
Shibuya Underground was born out of my love for introducing people to new things. The concept is an all-tasting menu, which is still an unknown concept for bars. It gives us the chance to introduce people to nihoshu in the right way. They don’t get to try one, they have to try six!
You get to see people’s reactions as they work their way from futsushu all the way to daiginjo and more interesting styles like koshu and taruzake.
You’re also a fan of shochu and awamori and it’d be great to hear what your first experiences were like with these Japanese spirits.
I’ve been lucky with shochu. The first one I’ve tried was katsutori (sake lees) shochu and it was amazing. I’m now an IWSC panel judge for shochu and am fortunate to try a wide range.
I’m looking forward to growing the supply in the UK, so we can really expand the potential of cocktails in the UK with both.
Bringing more awareness to things like shochu and awamori can seem like an uphill battle sometimes. What tips do you have for bartenders or people who’re looking to make them more accessible to a western audience?
I think you need to start easy. I love imo (sweet potato) and kome (rice) shochu but it can be too much for some people. There’s a lot of umami.
Kasutori and kokuto (brown sugar) are far more accessible and easier to mix. Most people will face the issue of supply and that’s been the biggest factor for myself but it’s not impossible.
If you have drinks which will sell, you’ll see them popping up in no time.
If you could change one thing about the sake industry, what would it be and why?
I’d look at the taxation category in the UK and think the other thing would be labelling. I understand a bit of kanji on a label but I don’t speak or read Japanese.
I’d like to see more brands taking the lead from Akashi Tai, which has amazing packaging. They’ve really hit a nail on the head with the brand looking and feeling Japanese while also being accessible to the UK market.
Outside of sake you have an interest in other historical drinks like vermouth and mead. What is it about these drinks that first drew you in and do you feel these kinds of heritage drinks are experiencing their moment in the spotlight again?
I’ve always been a fan of the more unknown spirits. I would ask “what is this” and I was met with vague answers I’d look it up myself. The world has never been more open than it is now. Information is so free and easy to get. But not every question has already been asked.
I found in Vermouth there was a large amount of “gatekeeping” so I started exploring that more. Mead I feel into for reasons I won’t go into.
Sake was born from my love of all things Japanese. I’m sure there will be many more things for me to fall into. I love Grappa, Calvados, Spanish Brandy and loads more obscure products.
What do you think are some good storytelling techniques bartenders can include in the presentation of drinks and are there any general drink brands you see doing storytelling well?
I think in the sake world storytelling could be better. A lot of information is out there on the brands. Most of the larger companies have English websites now and there are some great documentaries out there e.g. The Birth of Sake
For every brewery we stock at Shibuya Underground we want to learn and understand who they are and what they’re about. This informs us and helps us understand the sake as well as the people behind it.