For a successful business, preservation of a classic product isn’t enough; what we want is growth. So how do you take a traditional craft and create new buzz in the globalized marketplace?
There’s an up-and-coming boom in Japan, and it’s not what’s expected. Nihonshu, commonly known in the West as sake or Japanese rice wine, has conventionally been viewed as a traditional, and thus ‘serious’ drink among Japanese consumers. With an array of brewing methods and distinct yet subtle flavors from various regions, the world of nihonshu has almost been veiled in an impenetrable aura of mystique, making it further inaccessible to both young Japanese and foreign consumers.
Consumption-wise, nihonshu experienced a steep downfall domestically after reaching its peak in 1975. Subsequently, many family-owned sake breweries teetered on the brink of collapse. With beer continuing to soar in popularity as a refreshment that not only pairs well with both Eastern and Western foods but fits an infinite number of occasions, a steady decline in nihonshu seemed inevitable.
In hopes to reclaim a taste of its glory days, the industry is currently pioneering ways to revitalize the drink and connect with new audiences. To take on the task of adapting and appealing to the modern consumer, the industry has sought out to 1. increase approachable entry points, 2. diversify and cater to more occasions, and 3. make available for mass, convenient consumption.
Before COVID and the strict alcohol service restrictions implemented in Tokyo, sake tasting bars were a favored destination for both nihonshu fanatics and those looking to learn more about the crafty beverage. Still, for a complete newbie, the sole thought of having to choose from hundreds of brews may have been a bit intimidating, leading to an analysis paralysis of sorts.
What consumers need is both a simplified and personalized method to assist them in making the right choice. Yummy Sake is doing just that through the implementation of AI and onomatopoeia. Yummy Sake categorized nihonshu into 12 groups which are attributed to Japanese sounds such as awa awa, suru suru, and toro toro. With correlating cute, colorful icons, they’ve created an identification system that dramatically contrasts the pre-existing categories like junmaishu and jozoshu which are solely based on brewery methods.
Yummy Sake presents an instinctual way of finding your unique taste. Instead of having to rely on a nihonshu connoisseur who’s familiar with all the brewing techniques and flavors from various prefectures, consumers can now rate how much they enjoyed a brew and the app will generate which category you tend to like, recommending others based on your ratings. Through reinvention of the categories, Yummy Sake skillfully introduces an approachable way for consumers to enter the nihonshu market.
However, for someone who still has yet to find a reason to try nihonshu, Sake Ice has a different offering-- ice cream. Not only is it an indulgent treat for adults with a sweet tooth, they also carry an assortment of non-alcoholic flavours for children including rose raspberry, kiwi, and honey vanilla.
Sweet sake isn’t something new. In fact, amazake, which translates to sweet sake, is a creamy and sweet fermented rice drink that can be prepared both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and as far as we know, has existed as long as nihonshu has. But by combining it with a well-liked Western sweet, Sake Ice proposes a refreshing yet familiar pairing that’s bound to generate more interest in nihonshu.
Even Dassai, a premium nihonshu brand well-known for former Prime Minister Abe gifting a bottle to former President Obama, hopped on the trend and released its own Dassai milkshake at their bar in Paris. Quite similar to malt milkshakes, no?
Since its creation, nihonshu has been a craft intimately tied to the seasons due to its dependence on rice, its crucial ingredient. Rice harvested in autumn is fermented to make nihonshu with the freshest batches released in winter and early spring. This unpasteurized sake goes by many names-- namazake, shiboritate, shinshu--depending on the particular month it’s released. From spring to fall, the sake is aged in cool warehouses until it is brought to the table in autumn as hiyaoroshi. It wasn’t until 2007 though that natsuzake, sake specifically to be enjoyed in the summer, was born.
According to Japan Times, “a Tokyo-based sake store put out an appeal to brewers to make sake that was easier to drink in the summer in response to customer requests.” Hence, natsuzake was created as a way to offer nihonshu as a summer refreshment. Now, natsuzake is known as a sake served chilled and often bottled in blue or green tinted glass with a fruity, almost wine-like flavor.
The story of natsuzake’s invention speaks to the necessity of redesigning and diversifying the beverage to create a product that specifically caters to each season and occasion. For example, Mio is a chilled sparkling sake that boasts former Olympic ice skater Mao Asada as their ambassador. Unsurprisingly, sparkling sake is popular among women and at dinner parties as a quirky alternative to champagne.
Moreover, as Western cuisine becomes more integrated into the Japanese diet, Wakaze saw a demand for nihonshu that paired well with European dishes, something many brewers have been considering. The company holds two breweries, one in Tokyo and another in France. The nihonshu brewed in France is crafted using Japonica rice produced in France as well as local mineral water and aged in wine-barrels. Further diversifying their offerings, they even release limited bottles which are seasoned with teas and herbs like chamomile, mint, and hibiscus, which sound perfect for a Sunday picnic outdoors with friends and family.
Not only do these approaches create more opportunities for nihonshu to be widely enjoyed, they give rise to the exciting possibility of even greater innovation. Kuniko Mukai, the toji or lead brewer of Mukai Sake Brewery, is gaining attention for being a woman spearheading experimental sake brewery in a still very much male-dominated craft. Her graduating thesis at the Tokyo University of Agriculture involved making nihonshu out of roasted rice, rather than steamed, as well as Japan’s first colored sake, using heirloom red rice local to Mukai’s hometown in Kyoto. These revolutions in the craft are crucial for inviting and sustaining enthusiasm for nihonshu.
As societies modernize, consumers have always demanded more convenience. Ozeki’s One Cup release in 1964, the same year as the last Tokyo Olympics, was the first to shift from the 1.8L bottle standard to a single serving of 180ml. To this day, One Cup continues to be a staple in Japanese convenience stores.
To cater to a hipper audience, however, Gekkeikan, arguably the most popular nihonshu brand, released The Shot. Currently with four color-coded brews to choose from, The Shot offers an easy and varied way to enjoy nihonshu for the consumer on the go.
Overseas, nihonshu had taken on an almost unrecognizable expression-- jelly shots. Ikezo Sake Jelly Shots, a sparkling jelly refreshment with beauty enhancing ceramides and hyaluronic acid for supple skin, has garnered more attention abroad than at home. One review describes the drink as “the epitome of a party in your mouth,” which evokes the infamous ‘sake bomb’ cocktail’s success in turning the drink into a performance for kitsch entertainment.
The Future of Nihonshu
There’s no question that our economies have shifted dramatically in the past several decades, and that shift is reflected in the demographic of consumers. As consumers are becoming more culturally globalized, hybrid cocktails such as sake sangrias, saketinis, and sake mojitos become more and more common. This leads us to believe that growth in the international market for what was once a disappearing local craft is all but certain.
As if foreseeing this rise, Sake Hundred has already set out on the path to become the leading luxury sake brand worldwide. As the success of the recent Moët & Chandon X Ambush and Dom Pérignon X Lady Gaga campaigns may suggest, a creative collaboration may be exactly what sake needs to reach that next level.