In the heritage world of Japanese sake and its rooted cultural significance, Erika Haigh stands out as a passionate and dedicated sake specialist and educator. Raised in Japan and now based in London, Erika is not only an international kikisake-shi sommelier but also the founder of KAMOSU, a unique platform that celebrates premium and artisanal sake and Japanese drinks. She's also a co-owner of MOTO, the UK's first independent Japanese sake bar, shop, and eatery, as well as a judge in the International Wine Challenge. Erika's journey from Canada to the UK, her background in wine, and her commitment to bridging the gap between sake and the Western palate have earned her recognition and accolades in the industry such as as one of Code's 30 under 30 in 2020.
Here, we speak to Erika on her journey, insights into the world of sake, and how she's translating perceptions of this beloved Japanese beverage in the UK. Under her guidance, learn about sake's cultural nuances, flavours, and food pairings that make it such a fascinating and beloved drink of choice for connoisseurs and newcomers alike.
1. What do you love the most about Sake?
What I love the most about sake is its role as a gateway to Japan. While travelling across Japan, sake serves as a vehicle for understanding local communities—it's the national drink and it's deeply rooted in every region. When I drink sake, I make connections and find out so much more about the local history, and culture of the region that was behind making that specific sake. And amid this cultural exploration, it's also a delicious drink, making it a win-win. As a bridge between the UK and Japan, it allows for a sense of connection to the country, even for those who don’t get to visit Japan so regularly. Regardless of cuisine or setting, enjoying sake can transport you to Japan, offering insight into its origins and the people behind making it.
2. How would you describe the flavour of Umami?
Umami is a prominent flavour in sake, setting it apart from other alcoholic beverages. Simply put, I describe umami as a mouthwateringly, savoury flavour. It’s one of our fundamental tastes and is prevalent in many everyday foods like cheeses, mushrooms, grilled meats, tomatoes, and fish broth. Interestingly, umami is the initial flavour experienced even before birth, within the mother's womb, in the form of glutamate which is the chemical compound for umami. We taste umami heavily for our first six months as glutamate is the most abundant amino acid in our mother's milk. So it is a flavour that is so intrinsic to us from the beginning.
3. What is “umami” in the context of sake and food pairing?
Umami, in the realm of sake and food pairing, serves as the key to why sake pairs so well with a whole host of different dishes. The Japanese saying 'sake does not fight with food' is an important one, sake can pair with any dish due to its inherent umami. Even the most delicate sake styles carry this undercurrent compared to other beverages. Typically sake pairs with dishes like grilled vegetables or umami-rich options like steak or mushrooms as the beverage enhances the flavours on your palate or can add a complex element to any meal if the food itself is lacking it. We tend to draw a comparison between wine and sake - sake is lower in acidity than wine, there are no tannins and there is little bitterness on the palate. Sake's umami essence is the vital factor that elevates food pairings and in my opinion, makes it so well suited to pairing with food.
"When I drink sake, I make connections and find out so much more about the local history, and culture of the region that was behind making that specific sake."
- Erika Haigh, Sake Specialist
4. What do you aim to bring to London with Kamosu?
Through Kamosu, I want to create a new appreciation for sake in the UK and globally. Inspired by the word's Japanese meaning, to brew, which goes beyond creating a fermented beverage; it also means brewing an environment and feeling. Much like Japanese whiskey's successful marketing, my aim is to get sake to the same place. While Japanese whiskey has gained recognition beyond Japanese cuisine, many other Japanese craft beverages still struggle to do so. Kamosu seeks to reshape perceptions of Japanese premium beverages, making them versatile for everyday drinking beyond Japanese restaurants. Kamosu officially launched this year, and essentially has two arms of the business. On the one hand, we’re an educational platform aimed at consumers and sake enthusiasts, this takes shape through immersive events, tastings and collaborations each season, like our recent cheese and sake tasting at La Fromagerie and the sake paired dinner with modern British restaurant counter 71. The other wing is a b2b platform, we cut out the middle man by building close relationships with sake breweries and bringing sake to the UK which have never entered the UK market, we then supply our stock to restaurants. Sorakami is a popular sake ecommerce seller that now supplies Kamosu sake to consumers: https://sorakami.co.uk/collections/kamosu
5. Types of sake I'd recommend for a first-timer.
Selecting sake for a first-timer isn't straightforward due to individual tastes. Ideally, seeking a bar or restaurant with a knowledgeable sommelier familiar with sake is the best bet because then they can recommend one in line with your tastes. If exploring alone, any sake labelled with the word "Ginjo" is a solid starting point. Ginjo indicates finely polished rice - to 60% of its original size or less - resulting in a more fruity, aromatic, and cleaner sake that is more similar to drinking a fine wine. This familiarity with wine makes it a more comfortable experience for a first-timer.
All imagery is provided by Goya Communications. All image credits to Rebecca Dickson