Where did you drink your first sake? Was it at a Japanese restaurant together with a plate of sushi or sashimi? For some it may have been on a sake tour in Tokyo or perhaps a tiny bar in New York. Other readers may answer it was through a friend’s recommendation or at one of the exciting Japanese festivals in London. A theme you’ll soon pick up on here is that until recently each journey into the world of sake has often come from adventurous souls in niche market segments. So what makes Shima Drinks instantly appreciated by the majority of the sake world, is how they are making sake accessible to a wider audience, which especially helps sake brewers who are seeing declining domestic sales in Japan.
Now there are always going to be purists and there may be some who say sake shouldn’t be made into a cocktail. But why not if this helps breakdown old misconceptions about sake being a strong drink on par with a hard spirit, and shows how versatile and healthy a sake cocktail is, especially when you consider the Sake Spritz that Shima Drinks creates is naturally low in calories (only 98 or less per can). And we would say don’t knock something if you haven’t tried it either. After tasting the different flavours available (Yuzu & Elderflower, Plum & Hibiscus, and Lychee & Green Tea), you’ll find that each drink has been carefully made with a real focus on quality in terms of taste and ingredients.
It’s not surprising with this winning combination, and an understanding of how to combine both British and Japanese flavours that Shima is now being stocked in major outlets such as the Japan Centre, Selfridges, and even ramen shops like Kanada Ya and some Tonkotsu restaurants. You’ll also often spot the founders at Japanese festivals and events in London, where they continue on their mission to spread the word of Sake and introduce their Sake Spritz.
We decided to take advantage of the quieter winter season to interview founders Hector and Matt, and learn more about how they got themselves into the world of sake, as well as what makes Shima Drinks unique, and what they have planned for the future.
How have your Sake tastes changed over the years?
Best Japanese Q1: What are the first sake drinks you both drank and what were your impressions?
HB – I really started developing a passion for saké in New York in 2017. The drink was really taking off at the time, with the likes of Kato Sake Works and Brooklyn Kura opening – it was here that I did most of my sake studying (read drinking!).
MB – Not exactly saké, but I drank a revelatory Umeshu and tonic in Italy years and years ago. One of the first sakés I had in New York was actually a Nigori. It was like nothing I had ever tasted before, yet was very approachable.
Best Japanese Q2: What are your favourite sake drinks now and what sake would you recommend to your friends?
HB – A lot of our friends are still first-time sake drinkers! With this in mind, we always try and create a drink that in terms of look or taste has some kind of familiarity – whether it be a sake spritz, or sake-based negroni.
MB – I think there are a lot of parallels between what is happening in natural wine and saké. A really interesting area to explore is unpasteurized Namazake styles which taste really alive. Similarly, traditional brewing styles like Kimoto and Yamahai showcase the dynamism of saké.
How did you develop your Sake brewing knowledge?
Best Japanese Q3: Where did you travel to in Japan to learn about Sake?
HB – In a true whirlwind fashion, we travelled to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kanazawa and Niigata. In Kyoto, visiting Fushimi was a delightful way to learn more about saké. Overall, what we took away is the unparalleled dedication of all the brewers involved.
MB – A little off the beaten track – Niigata – has one of the greatest places to do some saké speed dating. Over 100 sakés in vending machines for some rapid fire tasting, and you don’t even need to leave the train station! Though you should, given the amount of character in the town, and to pay a visit to the historic yet innovative Imayo Tsukasa brewery.
Best Japanese Q4: How did you get around the language barrier when you visited the Sake breweries?
HB – We were fortunate enough to have a close friend who was able to provide some translation services for part of the time!
What would you like people to know about Sake?
Best Japanese Q5: What are some common Sake misconceptions you have encountered?
HB – Wow – the misconceptions around sake are a major factor in us creating Shima! We find sake to be constantly confused amongst consumers. As it is clear in liquid (on the whole) and sipped from small cups, many people think it is a lot stronger in terms of ABV, like a spirit.
MB – As Hec mentiones, the list is long! The fact that it is commonly only drunk with Japanese food is another barrier we are trying to dissolve.
Why do Shima Drinks come in cans?
Best Japanese Q6: Why did you decide to make Shima Drinks in a canned format?
HB – Firstly, we were lucky to be in a position in creating Shima that we could start from scratch with our processes and be conscious of our environmental impact from the start. As we all know cans are recyclable, but also in terms of transportation are much better for the environment.
MB – In making saké more accessible, the can is really important for us. Lightweight and portable – suited to on-the-go as much as a restaurant. It also means you have a perfect serve every time.
Best Japanese Q7: Who designed the packaging?
HB – From Day 1 we’ve partnered with Duzi Studio who work across all elements of Shima’s design. We’re always blown away with their work.
MB – They really understand our desire to speak to people’s curiosity.
More on what makes Shima Drinks unique
Best Japanese Q8: Why did you decide on the Yuzu & Elderflower and the Plum & Hibiscus?
HB – With all our recipes we look to blend the familiar with the curious – one flavour that is anchored in something known, whilst the other provides a new experience.
MB – The wonderful thing about saké as an ingredient is how it pairs with other flavours. It is subtle, rather than jumping out with a harsh alcohol taste, it works to bring balance to the recipe making a sum greater than the parts.
Best Japanese Q9: What makes Shima Drinks unique?
HB – We use a premium Junmai saké – compared to a lot of other canned drinks in the industry, this is a really high quality starting point. We compliment this with real fruit juices and botanical extracts, truthfully ingredients of the highest calibre.
MB – We hope Shima really delivers on flavour, especially in spite of not relying on sugar or high alcohol. We are really proud to use juice that comes from actual Yuzus, Plums and Lychees – that may sound like a funny thing to say to some!
What’s next for Shima Drinks?
Best Japanese Q10: What would your ultimate goals for Shima Drinks to be?
HB – It really feels like we’ve only just begun on this journey, and we’ve already taken so many twists and turns, its hard to say! We really want to see a world where saké is as widely enjoyed in the west as other drinks, and receives the recognition it deserves.
MB – We always joke that new product development is the most exciting part of our work. We’re really keen to keep exploring the relationship between British & Japanese flavours, and hopefully release more great drinks!
We hope this was a useful introduction to Shima Drinks. If you’d like to try their unique drinks, head over to the Shima Drinks website where you can sample all 3 flavours with their Curiosity Box.
Meanwhile if you’re looking for more information about the world of Sake, please check out our guide to Japanese sake. Also for more information about Japanese events in the UK, here’s our Japanese events calendar page to give you an idea to what’s coming up each month.