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The Nikkei newspaper reports on the increasing trend for premium sake, which brings me back to a previous story about a brewery trying a new way to set pricing at the wholesale level. (A sake that costs as much as wholesalers want to pay)

The Kokuryu brewery in Fukui Prefecture decided to have their wholesalers bid for their high-quality koshu, and the first ever auction of its kind in the sake industry took place on 14 June.

[Amusingly, the term I’ve rendered as “rise of premium” also translates as “gentrification” which was my first thought on seeing it.]

The products on offer are Kokuryu’s high-class Mu-ni (無二, “second to none”) sake brewed in years spanning 2012-2015, and buyers are expected to value some at a market price of over JPY 100,000. So is this the sake upgrade [someone? no-one?] asked for?

The auction used bidding sheets with three wholesale prices set by Kokuryu. Buyers filled in the number of cases (6 x 720 ml bottles) they wanted at each price. The number of cases requested was totalled, and the lowest price at which the number of cases requested was less than or equal to the number of cases available became the winning bid. The system restricts buyers to those with sufficient purchasing power.

For example, if there are 100 cases available and three wholesale prices (say JPY 20,000, JPY 25,000, JPY 30,000) and the bidding is as follows:

  • 150 cases requested at JPY 20,000
  • 90 cases requested at JPY 25,000
  • 50 cases requested at JPY 30,000

The price for everyone will then be JPY 25,000, as it’s the lowest one where the number of cases is less than or equal to the 100 available.

Kokuryu’s pricing was not made public.

The auction was held at Eneko Tokyo, a Basque bistro run by three-Michelin-star chef Eneko Atxa, and attended by 66 wholesale buyers. They had an opportunity to taste the sake and review documentation from Kokuryu with measurements such as acidity and nihonshudo. The article reports all serious faces as they filled in the number of cases they wanted on the bidding sheets.

Kokuryu’s previous highest-class product was Ishidaya, with a guide price of JPY 10,000 per 720 ml bottle. Kokuryu reported that they expected the sale price for the new products to be many times that, up to ten times more. A buyer at the auction said that depending on how it’s sold, it wouldn’t be surprising to see prices around JPY 500,000.

In this first auction, every vintage had to go to a second, higher-priced round of bidding because there was too much demand at the first round. The 2013-2015 vintages had one extra round, and the 2012 vintage had two before a final price was reached. Some vintages went for double the initial estimate, and the number of products was increased from 1,500 to 2,800.

Ikuya Uchiyama, owner of a shop in Hamamatsu City, thought the 2013 vintage was the best but remarked that its flavour would change over the period of a year and he would need to teach buyers how to mature it.

Naoto Mizuno, head of Kokuryu, said he was stunned by the very high evaluations and excitedly planned to hold the event every few years to manage their stock of vintage sake.

Mu-ni is a junmai daiginjō made from top-quality sake-specific Yamada Nishiki rice from the Tōjō area of Hyōgo Prefecture milled to 35%. Matured at freezing temperatures, it is the brewery’s finest line of sake. Bottles sold in the autumn will come with labels with QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone to get tasting notes and other information.

Unlike French and other wines, there seem to be few high-quality, high-price sake. For example, the Bordeaux Chateau Margot is regularly sold for JPY 50,000 a bottle, something inconceivable to a past kura owner. But breweries all over the country are scrambling to be first across this barrier.

ARCHIS, a regional product development company based in Yamaguchi City, made waves when it sold a bottle of the sake Mujaku for nearly JPY 90,000 in 2016. Using the year of harvest of raw materials as a “vintage”, like grapes for wine, and ageing the result is another way to develop sake into a premium product. And as sake looks to make a good impression abroad, the use of strategies like these will probably become more common.