In our fifth-ever edition of Makers & Shakers, we chat with Adrian Goh of Inter Rice Asia, one of the most influential personalities in Singapore’s sake scene.
Compared to wine, the sake business in Singapore is much smaller. But that is rapidly changing, with a growing number of passionate people in the sake value chain helping to move the needle.
And one name that invariably pops up whenever the local sake scene is discussed? Adrian Goh of sake importer and distribution company Inter Rice Asia. Aside from representing some of the more notable names in Japanese sake – Dewazakura (Yamagata Prefecture), Senkin (Tochigi Prefecture), Manotsuru (Niigata), Hourai (Gifu Prefecture), Keigetsu (Kochi Prefecture), and one of their newest, the 36 Guardians range from Yamagata’s Kikuisami, among many others – the inexhaustible powerhouse can often be found hosting sake pairing dinners in restaurants across town, as well as teaching Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) cohorts about his beloved Japanese alcoholic beverage. He is also regularly invited as a judge at sake competitions, and was even named among The Future 50 by WSET and International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) for his impact and influence in the world of sake.
All these reason are probably why Adrian’s name also came up as one of the local drinks media’s favourite F&B personalities last year.
We grab Adrian for a chat about the current state of Singapore’s sake scene.
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do at Inter Rice Asia.
I’m Adrian Goh, the director and chief educator at Inter Rice Asia. My main role is business development and controlling the sake portfolio; I choose, visit and familiarise myself with the sake breweries that we work with. I decide what is lacking in the portfolio and try to plug those gaps. I am also in charge of the sales team, coming up with the overall marketing direction and strategy.
As the chief educator, I continuously update the team on general and seasonal trends, or any new changes in the industry. We frequently do blind tastings to improve our palettes and get to know our sakes better. I lead my team in doing events, whether it be corporate events, trade events like Food Japan, or consumer events like Sake Matsuri.
How did you get into the sake business?
I’ve always enjoyed drinking alcohol! It is the start of all good stories and a great social lubricant.
At first I was interested in dealing in wine, but after some market research, I found out while there are thousands of vineyards, there are already over 500 wine distributors locally. Whisky had a different issue – there are just not enough brands to represent.
I’ve also been a fan of Japanese food my whole life: sushi, sashimi, yakitori, tempura, ramen, etc. It’s all good! So upon doing my research and finding out that there were less than 10 sake distributors locally then, it seemed to be a fun business with a lot of potential. Thus, I plunged into an industry I knew not a lot about.
It has definitely been a journey, with both costly mistakes and some great stories.
Let’s talk sake! What are your favourite sakes, sake breweries, sake styles, and/or sake making regions?
Haha, how do you pick your favourite child? I do have some bias towards Niigata and the Tohoku region, because that’s where I started my sake journey! But generally, I have a preferred style of sake for different moods, occasions, or for specific food pairings.
If I’m in a daytime drinking mood, I like a light and fresh sake that can be drunk very chilled, especially in Singapore. This would probably be a Junmai Ginjo, or Tokubetsu Junmai/Honjozo.
For a special occasion, a sparkling sake adds a touch of celebration. Premium sparkling sake is a very new product, only really being in the market for less than 20 years. It is a niche that I pay attention to, as you can see incremental improvements to the product every year.
For dinner pairings, I enjoy either Junmai or Junmai Ginjo sakes with a balance of fruit and rich umami. This is the true potential of sake, being able to pair easily with almost all food without any clash in flavours.
I had been involved in a JFOODO campaign called “Seafood loves Sake” for the last four years. As we associate sake more with specific food pairings instead of just Japanese cuisine, we will see sake appear more in non-Japanese restaurants.
You’re one of the foremost sake experts in Singapore, and regularly get invited to judge at sake competitions. Tell us how you look for quality when tasting a sake.
When you taste sake, you will look at three different factors. How a sake looks, how a sake smells, and how a sake tastes.
A typical sake would be colourless and transparent, however, the viscosity and colour of the sake would give indications of certain flavours. The aromas and flavours of sake should usually be in sync with one another.
Personally, the most important thing I look for in sake to show quality would be the balance. Balance is achieved when the different dichotomies of flavour are in equilibrium; sweetness and acidity, dryness versus flavour.
For example, if a sake is sweet without enough acidity to balance it out, it will be too cloying. If a sake is just fruity, it may taste monotonous and one-dimensional, so it will be more balanced if you introduce some bitterness to add complexity.
Sake seems to be growing in popularity here in Singapore, anecdotally at least. What do you attribute to that increasing interest in sake?
In Singapore, imports of sake have grown by 230%, 399 kilolitres to 917 kilolitres in the last ten years, while the value of imports has increased 610%, S$4.2m to S$25.6m in the same period. That is a very significant increase! As I have been in the Singapore sake business for the last 11 years, I would love to say that I have contributed greatly to those numbers, but it is more likely I was at the right place at the right time.
I feel that the popularity of sake has multiple reasons. For a start, Japanese cuisine has always been popular in Singapore, yet sake consumption was lagging behind, in those days you would usually only get your generic table sake hot or cold. It was inevitable that it would catch up eventually. Nowadays, you can get a wide range of different styles and grades. Japanese chefs have also been active in other cuisines such as French and Italian food, so along with Japanese ingredients, sake would start to play a part.
A general world trend is that people are drinking less, but drinking better. There is also the boom of craft, which is the belief that products made in smaller batches are of higher quality. There is nobody more craft than sake brewers who have been making the same product over numerous generations.
In the last ten years, culinary and service institutions which have been focusing on wine and other alcoholic beverages, suddenly put their attention on sake. Currently there are a few major organisations, such as the WSET, that provide education and qualifications in sake training. By training not only consumers but also the front line service staff, people are more confident in introducing sake in non-Japanese environments.
Outside Japan, there are people who are organising major sake competitions that lead to greater recognition in their respective countries. I have been representing Singapore as a judge since 2016 at the International Wine Challenge (IWC), which is the largest sake competition outside Japan. These competitions are very important to showcase Japanese sake to the world. Having sake competitions outside Japan and being judged by experts of many different nationalities makes it more acceptable to the mainstream. It also allows a flow of information between the Japanese and non-Japanese judges that brings the sake industry into the greater fold of the international alcohol community.
What trends do you see for sake in the coming future? Would sakes made outside of Japan be a (bigger) thing?
Sakes used to be generally a lot more generic in terms of taste. Travelling through Japan ten years ago, I actually found that the more entry level sakes at sake breweries showcased more personality than their highest-end Daiginjos or Junmai Daiginjos. Breweries have known that their formulaic use of certain ingredients made their high end sake tasty but at the cost of tasting similar to sakes brewed by competitors.
Regionality in sake is also quite a very recent phenomenon. Instead of using the “best” rice from Hyogo and the association yeast that makes the most aroma, prefectural authorities and some breweries have been developing their own rice varietals or yeast stains to suit their own personality, style and taste preferences.
Appellations in Japanese sake have started to appear. Known as a Geographic Indication (GI), there have been 15 areas in Japanese designated as GIs, not including the GI for Japanese sake itself, which was designated in 2015. Nine of these areas were designated in the last three years, so you can say this trend is very new, but also escalating quickly. As I also organise my portfolio based on regionality, I’m very glad to see that regionality is starting to gain recognition.
A famous sake personality also argued that sake is too cheap. It’s quite true, however breweries also have to justify increasing the prices of their top end sakes or no one would buy them. This leads to a lot of innovation, whether it be special rice types, lower polishing ratios, or revisiting ancient recipes and formulas. We are entering an age of innovation where brewers are finding new or old ways of brewing sake.
There is also a growing number of overseas sake breweries. Their products are more likely to be drunk with their local food, rather than Japanese food, showing off sake’s versatility along with increasing reach.
Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Singapore, and why?
As a F&B distributor, I feel like I almost have to give up my rights to have a favourite place to eat or drink despite the fact that I’m still a typical Singapore foodie. This is because I have to visit a lot of different places to support my customers! I believe variety is the spice of life, and visiting restaurants is not only about the food, but the experience of dining there. I do enjoy a well thought out concept when it comes to dining out.
This leaves me to always think about food pairings with alcohol, especially Japanese sake. So when I visit a new restaurant and try their pairings, I usually whisper to the sommelier how certain dishes would go better with Japanese sake. This may be a bit self-serving, but it still helps to grow the industry that I love!
[Image credits: Joel Lim Photography]
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