The Nikkan Gendai Digital site has an article on sake branching out overseas, following Dassai to New York and Kokuryū to Hong Kong.
It starts by taking the positive outlook on where sake is going. Japan Customs (part of the Japanese Ministry of Finance) put the volume of exports in 2017 at 23,482 kilolitres, pushing the value of exports up to JPY 18,679,180,000 – an increase of 20% over the previous year and the latest in an eight year streak of new records.
Haruo Matsuzaki, chairman of the Sake Export Association, comments that the explosion in popularity of sake overseas has also given sake a boost. As sake is meant to be drunk with a meal, and Japanese food is seen as both healthy and high quality, sake is by association increasingly being seen as a high-quality product.
North America dominates the sake export rankings in terms of volume, followed by Korea and China. The top spot by value is also taken by North America, but it’s followed by Hong Kong – which takes second place for value even though it only ranks fifth for volume. Out of the top 10 countries, Hong Kong pays the most per litre at JPY 1,549. But it’s surprising that countries associated with fine dining, like France and Italy, don’t even make it on to the board. Matsuzaki’s explanation is that it’s partly distance but also that Europe has more conservative countries that are slower to adopt new things.
Italy experienced a sudden increase in awareness of sake in 2015 when it was included in Expo 2015 held in Milan, and exports to Italy increased by 20% over the previous year. France experienced an ever greater increase of 60% year on year. There’s no question that exports are growing, but what exactly is being exported?
Matsuzaki reports that Asian countries prefer aromatic, fresh ginjō sake, whereas the more adventurous North Americans go more interesting styles like nigori or kijōshu. Europe tends towards complex flavours and maturation, such as yamahai and koshu. He also mentions that specific brands of sake, such as Jūyondai and Kokuryū, are popular overseas, with Kokuryu having quite a following in Hong Kong (partly because the name, Black Dragon/黒龍, is seen as auspicious).
The practice of drinking sake warm is also spreading, with novelty-seeking hipsters swarming locations in Hong Kong and Manhattan the specialise in okan (お燗, sake served warm/hot). [I went for “hipsters” but the Japanese has “snobs”.] Some are so popular it’s impossible to get a reservation.
Overseas production is also increasing. North America is experiencing a craft sake boom, with about 20 microbreweries producing sake. They use American-grown rice, convert brewing equipment designed for wine or beer and are often self-taught, but the quality of the sake they make has improved dramatically in the last two or three years. The article gives the example of the Brooklyn Kura, opened in January 2018, which serves freshly-brewed sake straight from the tank like beer on tap.
They also produce their own original styles, such as a sake flavoured with hops, and serve side dishes like pizza, ham, sausages or deep-fried broad/fava beans. It’s the kind of place you could drop into for a leisurely drink on a day off.
Doesn’t overseas production threaten exports from Japan? Matsuzaki thinks not. In fact he thinks it’s the opposite, that it’s a great chance for sake to become more well known. Asashi Shuzō (makers of Dassai) plan to open a large production plant in the USA next year, which he sees as a sign of sake spreading around the world.