Perched on the side of a hill deep in the forests of Tokyo’s western fringe, Ozawa Shuzo has been turning rice into sake for more than 300 years.
Drunk chilled – and at a sensible pace – its premium labels are regarded as the perfect accompaniment to the delicate flavours of Japanese cuisine.
The Japanese have been drinking sake since around the eight century, originally believing that it warded off evil spirits. But with more people turning their back on their national drink, which is made from fermented rice, brewers are winning converts far beyond Japan’s shores.
“The boom years in Japan were after the second world war,” says Junichiro Ozawa, the president of Ozawa Shuzo. “But the heavy sake drinkers of that era are getting old and fading away. “ He acknowledged that younger people regard sake as “a bit old-fashioned”.
“The custom used to be that you would drink beer, sake, and maybe whisky with your colleagues after work, but younger people want to try something different.”
In the decades after the war, rough, and cheap sake became the after-work liquor of choice for the legions of salarymen tasked with rebuilding their country’s economy.
As recently as the mid-70s, the Japanese were working their through 1.67m million kilolitres a year, according to the national tax agency. But by 2014, domestic consumption had shrunk to 557,000 kilolitres. In the 1980s there were an estimated 3,500 breweries; now there are just 1,300.
The decline is being blamed on Japan’s ageing, falling population and a recently acquired taste for wine and other alcoholic drinks.
Sake exports, by contrast, have doubled in the past decade to a record 19,737 kilolitres last year, the tax agency said, with the US accounting for about a quarter of the total, followed by Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and South Korea.
Other breweries are mirroring Ozawa Shuzo’s success. Ota brewery in central Japan has seen exports rise 40% in just two years; Nanbu Bijin, in north-east Japan, says the value of its exports rose by almost a third to 100 million yen (£704,000) in 2015 from two years earlier.
Most exported sake ends up in the Japanese restaurants, the number of which has shot up in the past three years to around 89,000.
Outside of Japan, adventurous drinkers are discovering that premium sake is a far cry from the astringent firewater that has sustained many a businessman on long bullet-train journeys.
Sake’s growing reputation overseas was evident last September, when Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate released its first ratings guide for 78 brands of premium sake – so called because the rice grains are highly polished and no distilled alcohol is added during the brewing process.
“There is a valid market overseas, and sake brewers are right to take advantage of that,” says John Gauntner, an American sake expert and author of half a dozen books on the subject.
“More people are being exposed to sake, there are more opportunities for them to educate themselves. The more they try it, the more they like it. It’s a virtuous cycle.”
The industry’s global marketing drive has won the backing of Japan’s government, which served the drink to world leaders at last year’s G7 summit in Ise-Shima. The International Wine Challenge has included a sake category since 2007, with the number of brands reaching almost 1,300 at last year’s contest in London.
For connoisseurs like Gauntner, sake has as much character and variation as wine. “It is significant that wine professionals around the world are beginning to embrace sake,” he says. “Twenty years ago, they looked at it with disapproval, but now they are genuinely interested, and they have a huge influence on what people decide to buy.”
In the mid-1980s, Ozawa Shuzo exported just a few hundred bottles to the US. Thirty years on, it sells almost 9,000 litres a year overseas, thanks, in part to the global boom on Japanese cuisine.
Now his eldest son, Mikio, is learning business English in preparation for trips across the Pacific to explain the finer points of sake appreciation to a largely uninitiated clientele.
“I would like it if we were able to present sake as Japan’s unique contribution to the world of alcohol, and for people to respond positively to that,” says Ozawa, who drinks sake every day.
“As soon as the sun goes down, having some sake is all I can think about.”
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