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Dojima Sake Brewery: how the £1,000 sake tastes like

Have you ever tried sake for £1,000 per bottle? For me, it was the first time! Made by Dojima Sake Brewery in Cambridgeshire, UK, it costs almost twice as expensive as other premium and much more established brands in the market like Kubota Tsugu or Dassai Beyond (I don’t take into account vintage sake, it’s a bit a different cattle of fish). And Dojima is not even a ginjo sake!

So what’s the story? How did I manage to put my hands on the drink which is way beyond my paycheck? I was just lucky. I received an email from Daiwa Foundation about their forthcoming events and immediately spotted Dojima Sake Brewery name and got all excited.

For recent months the brewery, which started the commercial production only last September, was the talk of the industry. Everyone was asking: “Have you heard about Dojima sake and their prices?”. When I met Tony Mitchell, Dojima’s production manager, his first question was: “You know how much our sake costs, don’t you?”. So when I saw the email from Daiwa Foundation mentioning the Dojima Brewery, I signed up without even thinking, so much I wanted to try the mythical Dojima sake.

Kiyomi Hashimoto
Professor Mikael Adolphson, Cambridge University and Kiyomi Hashimoto, CEO Dojima Sake Brewery

The talk I attended was about the collaboration between business and academia. The panel included Professor Mikael Adolphson from the University of Cambridge, Shuhei Kataoka from the Embassy of Japan and Ms Kiyomi Hashimoto, CEO of Dojima Sake Brewery. The conversation was very interesting but it’s not the topic of this blog. So I’ll move straight to the sake reception.

But before taking my first sip of Dojima sake I managed to catch up with Hashimoto-san, the brewery’s CEO, and have a little conversation about the brewery and the sake. Two questions were nagging me for the last few months: a technical one – how they are dealing with the UK’s hard water and marketing one – why they decided to put such a shocking price tag on their sake, is it really worth it?

The answer to the first question was quite simple. Yes, the water is hard, but it’s not a big problem. The main issue is iron, which spoils sake (see my post about the water in sake production). However, the brewery just filters the water to reduce the iron content and deals with the water hardness through the brewing process. There are plenty of hard water regions in Japan, which make amazing sake. Though it should be noted that the water in the UK is much harder than even the hardest water in Japan. So to brew sake using this water requires a lot of skills and craftsmanship.

The second question was a bit more tricky. According to Hashimoto-san, the brewery would like to enter the super-premium market in order to promote sake across the world and show what fair price for sake looks like. Well, there is plenty of non-vintage wine, which can fetch a much higher price than £1,000 per bottle, it’s for sure. And there is definitely a market for super expensive alcoholic drinks. Many non-Japanese Michelin-star restaurants are looking for something unusual and interesting to add to their drink lists and a super-premium sake could be a good way to enter this market. But still, £1,000?

Let’s first look at Hashimoto-san’s point about promoting sake. How many people can you reach who can afford to pay £1,000 per bottle? Not that many. As someone mentioned to me during the sake reception, “only some crazy Russians will buy it”. Well, not sure if it applies only to Russians, but obviously only a few can afford it and even fewer will buy.

But on the other hand, the price point has definitely grabbed some headlines. Also, Dojima Brewery offers sake tasting at a quite affordable price (£30) and organises tours and the sake making experiences at its premises in Cambridgeshire. This will definitely help raise sake awareness in the UK and make people appreciate how much efforts and craftsmanship is involved in making of sake. Probably people will become more susceptible to the higher price point (but still not £1,000!).

It leads to Hashimoto-san’s second point about the fair price for sake. If you think about how much labour, skills and efforts are invested in making sake, the drink definitely seems underpriced, especially in Japan. Everyone in the industry knows that most of sake breweries are not profitable at all. However, it’s the reality of the market. There are plenty of breweries and the demand is still falling (though mostly on futsushu and honjozo).

While I applaud to Dojima’s valour to put their sake on the market at such a high price point and respect their marketing strategy, I still have my doubts. The market for super-premium alcohol is very limited. Even on the global scale, there are less than 2,000 Michelin-star restaurants and many of them, especially 1-star ones might not be that interested in super-premium sake. As I said before, Dojima makes junmai sake, which while in the premium category, normally doesn’t command the highest price point as ginjo or daiginjo sake.

You should also keep in mind, that Dojima Brewery is located in the UK near Cambridge. So they don’t have any significant transportation costs or import taxes making it even more difficult to justify the price tag. However, if Dojima Brewery takes the lead, other brands like Dassai, Kubota and Tatenokawa could follow the suit and hike the prices of their super-premium products.

So what about the sake itself? Was it worth the price? The brewery currently makes two brands, Dojima and Cambridge. Both are junmai sake. The Dojima sake uses premium Yamada Nishiki rice from Hyogo prefecture polished to 70% and the water from the Fordham Abbey estate made pure by a geological layer formed during the Ice Age. The sake is made through a slow fermentation process.

I would probably never thought that it’s just junmai sake. It’s fruity and mellow, not very dry and full of umami. It’s definitely not the savoury style associated with junmai sake but more like junmai ginjo. Easy to drink, very enjoyable. I would definitely try it with seafood or light meat dishes. Dojima’s elegant taste will not overpower the delicate taste of fish or chicken.

Dojima Cambridge Sake
Dojima Cambridge Sake

The second Dojima’s sake is called Cambridge. Made from Komachi rice from he Akita prefecture polished to 60%, it’s supposed to be an aged sake. However, given that the brewery only started the production in September 2018, Cambridge was presented in a form of namazake, unpasteurised sake. The sake was quite sweet with a lot of wild undertones of namazake and full of umami. I can imagine that in a few years’ time when most of the wildness calms down, it will become a wonderful dessert sake. It was still a suburb sake in its current form though.

The Cambridge sake is very interesting in two aspects: its brewing method and the marketing strategy. Its sweetness comes from the way it’s brewed. Instead of adding more water in the final stages of fermentation, the brewer chooses to add sake, Dojima Junmai in this case. The fermenting mash becomes even more concentrated resulting in the higher sugar level, which does not have time and capacity to become alcohol. The sake brewed this way is called kijoshu. Kijoshu is normally aged for several years and is quite rare even in Japan.

Cambridge sake is marketed as an anniversary sake aged for special occasions. As I understand, you can buy a bottle of Cambridge sake on your wedding day, put your name on the label (it’s got a special space for that) and leave it ageing at the Fordham Abbey cellars for 3-5 years until for example the 5th wedding anniversary and then celebrate it with a perfectly aged sake. Quite clever, don’t you think?

So what do I think about Dojima sake? I really liked it. I think that the quality of the brewing is really high. It’s definitely not an ordinary junmai sake. I preferred Dojima to Cambridge but only because Cambridge wasn’t in its intended aged form. It’s quite amazing that you can produce such sake in the UK. But personally I think that the price is a bit excessive, especially for Dojima.

I can see how the company can succeed with its Cambridge sake marketing strategy. There will be people who would like to store a bottle or two of great sake for a special date. Not that many, but real sake lovers who can afford it might go for it. I’m sure that aged kijoshu could fetch a quite premium price and internationally the Cambridge name could a good marketing asset.

However, I’m still not sure about the Dojima sake. Again, it’s a suburb sake and there will be demand from 3-star Michelin restaurants across the world for it. But will be enough to sustain the production, I don’t know. Probably excellent marketing skills of Hashimoto-san together with Tony Mitchell’s craftsmanship will make it happen.

Still I have to admit that I feel a bit uncomfortable with the price. Sake is a beautiful drink which for many centuries was bringing people together. Turning it into an elitist drink available only to a few in a way undermines its great history. So I hope that Dojima Brewery will start making some more affordable sake soon to let sake lovers appreciate its mastery and skills. Until then I’ll stick to more affordable but in no way less beautiful sake.



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.

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