Prestigious Nada sake producer Nihonsakari reinvents itself by launching Sakari, a new sake line targeted at a more contemporary, international audience.
If there’s one thing Japan is known for, it’s that it is a nation steeped in culture and tradition. The island nation spent thousands of years in isolation – some of it self-enforced during its Tokugawa era – and over time developed a traditional culture that is truly uniquely its own. By the Meiji period, Japan welcomed modernity; the country embraced technology and new things like no other country before, nor any other country since.
Today, much of Japan’s unique culture – both old and new – can be seen in its sake brewing tradition. Some of the techniques still in use in sake brewing today harken back to the 15th century. These include practices such as the milling of rice to remove husks to make a more refined sake, the use of pasteurisation, as well as sandan shikomi, the process of adding ingredients to the fermenting mash in three separate stages as a form of quality control and consistency.
Conversely, over the years many Japanese brewers have also readily adopted technology in sake making. From modern milling machines and sake presses to fully-equipped laboratories for cultivating specialised brewing yeasts, technology is now employed by many breweries in various phases of the sake making process.
A new sake frontier.
Domestic consumption of sake in Japan has been falling over the past few decades, largely due to rising competition from other product categories such as beer, wine, and whisky. Ironically though, there has been a global explosion of interest in sake as countries such as the United States, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore readily lap up Japan’s iconic alcoholic beverage. While sake exports represent just under 5% of total Japanese sake production, they have reached record highs for ten consecutive years. That trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
The burgeoning global interest in sake is why many sake breweries are casting their eyes at markets outside of Japan. One of these is Nishinomiya Kigyo Company, which makes the Nihonsakari brand of sake.
Sake enthusiasts may know Nihonsakari as one of Japan’s largest sake producers. Located in Nadagogo of Hyogo Prefecture – one of the most prestigious regions in the whole of Japan for making sake – Nihonsakari made their name from producing top-quality sake. In fact, that focus on quality helped Nihonsakari rise to become one of the most prominent sake makers in Japan barely ten years from their founding in 1889. In 1915, Nihonsakari received an imperial warrant to supply their sake for enthronement ceremony of Emperor Taishō; their Junmai Ginjo Souhana has been served in the Japanese imperial household till today.
Despite its successes in the domestic market, Nihonsakari realised that what works for the Japanese consumer may not readily apply to foreign markets. For example, a large proportion of sake sold within Japan was futsū-shu, or what is essentially table sake. Export markets, especially those in the Asia Pacific such as Hong Kong and Singapore, were thirsting for top-quality drops instead. Award-winning, high-end restaurants and bars in those markets were looking for premium junmai daiginjo and ginjo to list on their menus.
Another major concern was a more aesthetic one. Traditional label design on sake bottles tended towards the use of kanji. The Japanese script – which employs Chinese characters – can be understood in export countries like Hong Kong or Taiwan, but was largely alien to Western markets. In many cases it was difficult for consumers to even identify the producer from the bottle label, much less understand the grade or terroir of the sake.
Sakari sake – designs on the future.
To that end Nihonsakari launched a new export line of sake, after an extensive rebranding exercise in collaboration with an Italian design agency. Sakari, by Nihonsakari, is a new range that aims to present a modern look with 21st century Japanese sensibilities, yet retaining its strong brewing heritage.
“What we are doing with Sakari is simply translating our sake to be easier understood by people from different cultures,” explained Arito Mori, Manager of International Division at Nihonsakari, who manages the company’s Sakari brand.
Aside from the shortening of the name, the five expressions in the current Sakari sake range sport a new logo. This new design is made up of five modern sake glasses, fanned out to represent the five petals of the sakura, the official flower of Nishinomiya, the city where Nihonsakari is based. They also represent the five founders of whom had originally established the company almost 130 years ago.
“We like that the five sake glasses look like they are meeting in a toast, to create the sakura flower,” Mori pointed out.
The labels on the Sakari bottles too are an exercise in Japanese aesthetic and design sensibility; you’re looking at plenty of white space, asymmetric design, curved lines, and traditional Japanese patterns, among others. But there are also English descriptions to explain what the sake is, as well as different colours and numbers to help differentiate them from each other.
Brewing joy since 1889.
But with the Japanese known as sticklers for tradition, would the rebranding be seen as a move away from heritage? Nihonsakari’s Mori doesn’t think so.
“We are going to keep using Nihonsakari brand for our traditional lineups as before, while the Sakari brand is used exclusively for selected products. Currently five products use the brand name: Sakari Junmai Daiginjo, Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai and Yuzu,” clarified Mori.
“But personally, I strongly believe that the important thing is not to protect tradition, but to protect the core values behind that tradition. And for me, the core values of the tradition of sake is to connect humans to nature, and person to person,” he added.
“There’s a reason Nihonsakari’s brand slogan is ‘brewing joy since 1889′”, Mori said. “On the surface we are brewing just sake, but more importantly we are brewing joy of consumers who drink our sake with their friends and loved ones. And Nihonsakari has been doing this since 1889, not just from yesterday or 10 years ago.”
That connection with nature is also why Nihonsakari moved to have its new Sakari line of sakes certified as preservatives-free, gluten-free, as well as vegetarian-friendly. It’s a move will appeal to a global audience, one that is increasingly more attuned to wellness and a concern for the environment.
According to Mori, change is inevitable and part of the natural evolution of things. And that applies to even a culture as time-honoured as Japan’s, as well as its sake brewing traditions. “Do you think sake is the same today as it was one thousand years ago?” asked Mori. “Surely not. There should be a lot of changes, challenges, struggles, and updates on sake in the past.”
“One thing for sure is that sake will be updated continuously by the next generation as it has always been. These days it’s not only the Japanese, but also many young sake brewers all around the world. And I’m very happy about that,” insisted Mori.
“As for Sakari sake, we want to be part of that future, and continue to brew joy for more consumers than today.”
Sakari sake is distributed exclusively in Singapore by Inter Rice Asia. Currently, the Sakari range carries five products – Sakari Junmai Daiginjo, Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai and Yuzu – which will be available in Singapore from end-March 2021.