As the national beverage of Japan, sake has played an integral role in Japanese culture ever since its inception some time between *checks notes*... 300 BC and 250 AD. Blimey. Yep, it's generally accepted that the drink (made from rice, water, and kōji mold) first came about after the process of rice cultivation was brought over from neighbouring China during an age otherwise known as "a very long time ago".
Consecrated with such a rich history, drinking sake can (and really should) involve a special sense of ceremony. Sipping from an o-choko offered to you by another person is a profound experience that's more than just a way to get tipsy. So, yeah, sake is pretty serious business. But it's also a hell of a lot of fun.
Getting into everyone's favourite fermented rice beverage as a beginner can, however, seem a little daunting. It's difficult to know what to order and where to go to ensure you're getting hold of the good stuff.
Just as drinking too much Foster's can muddy your opinion of what beer actually tastes like (hint: it's not rusty water), chances are fairly high that if you think you don't like sake, you've probably only ever drunk bad sake. Or you're just a broken human being. Either could be possible. We don't know want to know your life story, for goodness sake.
We do want to help you out when it comes to eating and drinking lovely things though. Which is why we've gone and done this little list to give you a leg-up in choosing the best spots to start your journey into the sake hemisphere. So, sit down, pay attention, and discover just how stonking sake can be at these bars and restaurants dotted across the capital.
8 Heddon Street, W1B 4BU
As part of the Japan Centre group, Sakagura benefits from one of the best supply chains possible for authentic, high-end Japanese produce. Go for wagyu steak, cooked at the table on an ishiyaki stone or a barbecue, yakinuku-style, and stay for the sake list – one of the best and most extensive in London – which features loads of styles, from freshly brewed to aged expressions. You can even take in the Japanese art of takami biraki – having a sake barrel brought to your table and broken in front of your very eyes.
23 Conduit St, W1S 2XS
Tokimeite launched with massive fanfare a few years ago, marking the arrival of legendary Japanese chef Yoshihiro Murata to these shores for the first time. These days it's helmed by head chef (and Murata protegé) Daisuke Hayashi, and you can still expect great Japanese ingredients by way of a hands-on partnership with Japanese farming co-operative Zen-Noh. Expect silver service, some eye-wateringly good sushi (including preparations of sea urchin and abalone, naturally) and Japanese barbecue including some of the best wagyu this side of Japan. The sake list is a doozy, too, with warm, chilled and the odd super-premium option making the grade alongside a range of great Japanese whiskies.
My Neighbours the Dumplings
165 Lower Clapton Road, E5 8EQ
Everybody needs good neighbours. And the best kind of neighbours are those that ply you with dumplings and sake. Which is why My Neighbours the Dumplings are perhaps our favourite just-over-the-fence mates in London. Dumpling wizard Carol Lee and head chef Marc Marayag's restaurant is fun, inviting and never disappoints when it comes to pleasing your tum. MNTP's basement sake bar, Matilda's, offers an extensive range of sake specially selected and imported from independent sake breweries across Japan. Cocktails such as the signature Sake Old Fashioned are a perfect gateway into the world of sake. Needless to say, a trip to a My Neighbours always helps to make a better day.
426 Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8LF
This Japanese soul food restaurant in Brixton is on a mission to get you drinking better sake. To help you on your merry way, Nanban's owner Tim Anderson has slashed the margins on the top-grade bottles – meaning you can familiarise yourself with the full spectrum of sake without breaking the bank. And for those still new to this Japanese rice wine, there's even a sake flight on the menu which will take you through more delicate styles such as the Shirayuki Daiginjo to those on the richer side like the Kameman brown rice sake. To get a real taste of the traditional izakaya experience, sink a sake (or two) alongside some tempura veg and Anderson's signature lazy goat ragù-men.
County Hall, Belvedere Road, SE1 7GL
Hannah is a Japanese-style tavern delivering a pared back take on Japanese cuisine at a competitive price. Daisuke Shimoyama – the big boss at the place – has worked in the Japanese food scene for more than 20 years at everywhere from hole-in-the-wall restaurants to 3 Michelin star establishments. He's now in Lambeth to fully convert you to the sake side of things. Order a wagyu donburi and sink into a lovely little melted fat-induced coma before reviving yourself with a glass of quality onigoroshi sake. Umeshu plum wine and yuzushe citrus sake are opposite ends of the sweet and sour spectrum, but both provide an ample insight into the versatility of the rice wine.
5 Panton Street, SW1Y 4DL
Machiya, the second restaurant concept from the founders of Kanada-Ya, is the place to try dishes like unajyu, grilled eel with unagi sauce, and omu rice, rice braised in chicken stock and served on a thin omelette. Downstairs is where you can find a cosy, intimate drinking den that specialises in some pretty out-there cocktails (they've got one called the Jigglypuff... no, really) and a range of sake. Mio sparkling sake is a nice change of pace from post-work prosecco and well worth your attention. As are the likes of high-end sake like the ichiro junmai daiginjo from renowned sake brewery Dewazakura.
Yashin Ocean House
117-119 Old Brompton Road, SW7 3RN
This modern Japanese restaurant, centred on head-to-tail dining, lovingly makes the most of the best produce the ocean has to offer. All of the sushi and sashimi at Yashin Ocean House is prepared with the utmost care and the gorgeous sake selection is curated with an according sense of attention. In fact, there's almost too much choice. If you're stuck on which sake to go for first, we'd recommend trying the restaurant's Sake Flight. £9.50 gets you a 30ml taster of sake trio Yashin-exclusive 'Chugin', Izumi Judan, and X3 sake. Chase that with some dessert-y yuzu, plum, or pear fruit sake for a pretty sweet finish to the night.
133 Copeland Road, SE15 3SN
Craft sake? It's a thing. And it's a thing that Peckham's Kanpai sake brewery does very well. This warehouse lot around the back of Bussey Building contains a relaxed izakya-style bar blessed with a range of its own fresh sakes plus a spate of guest runs and other Japanese drinks and snacks. The home-made sake at Kanpai is small-batch, sulphite-free, gluten-free, preservative-free, and vegan. So, what's actually in it, then? Well, Kanpai's sake includes just four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji. Kanpai's hopped sparkling sake, Fizu, is unique and a little like "sake-meets-champagne". And if you think that sounds like it would be hella fun to drink (you're right, it is), why not grab yourself a bottle of sake hot sauce (made in collaboration with burger barons Slow Ritchie's) while you're at it, too?
Lulu (Shanghainese Delicacy & Sake Bar)
24 Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 0LU
If you're looking for somewhere where you can enjoy quality Japanese sake and authentic Chinese victuals without having to worry about whether your shoes are on the right side of "just about smart enough", Lulu's is where you should be heading. All of the dishes at this Stokey gem may be MSG-free, but they still pack a hell of a punch in the umami department. Dive into Shanghai dim sum staples shao mai and xiao long bao dumplings as well as Lulu's own signature Grandma-style pork belly. The latter, which arrives on a cloud of white rice, is as lovely and homely as its name suggests. Cocktails and sake are an obvious must. Followed, of course, by a visit to Lulu's karaoke room.
Sake no Hana
23 St James's St, SW1A 1HA
Sake no Hana is a Mayfair restaurant from Alan Yau OBE – the same fella behind Hakkasan and, you guessed it, Wagamama. There aren't many more austere or upmarket venues in the city, so prepare to be lost for words as you work your way through charcoal-grilled toban and kamameshi dishes as well as a host of fresh sashimi from the much sought-after sushi bar. Thirsty, too? Good. The Dassai Flight is an excellent way to push the sake boat out. That flight contains three top shelf sake from Dassai – arguably the most famous sake brand in the world – including the world's first ever "super sake", Dassai 23. All that should have you bobbing along just nicely. More like Sake yes Hana, are we right?