The Sake Revolution

After decades of neglect and abuse, the national drink is becoming fashionable again as brewers turn to techniques new and old. Plus, the best places to drink it in Tokyo now.

Getty Images
OF 12

One of Asia’s most ancient drinks, sake is undergoing a sea change. A new generation of brewers, or toji, is redefining the rice wine by going back to the ancestral roots of its production methods. Nihonshu—as it’s called in Japanese—has always been Japan’s alcohol of choice, playing a central role in Shinto ceremonies, but until recently sake’s quality had been declining because of mass production. It was often either unbearably sweet from additives or too acidic. It also faced new competition in the form of beer, wine, and spirits. But Sebastien Lemoine, who teaches a seminar on the beverage at Le Cordon Bleu in Hiroshima, says that sake is in the midst of a craft revolution.

“When I first arrived in Japan [from France] in 1987, sake was a very different drink,” he says. “Now the affluent young no longer want to drink the headache-inducing party brew of their grandparents. They want something crafted, unique, and particular.”

Typical of this breed of nihonshu is Kikuyoi, made by a maverick toji named Takashi Aoshima at the Aoshima Shuzo brewery in Fujieda, Shizuoka Prefecture. For half the year, Aoshima grows his own rice, then shaves off all his body hair and settles down to mill the rice. He won’t eat beef and pork while brewing because he claims they interfere with his sense of smell. Not long ago, such fanatical attention to detail would have been unthinkable.

The combination of the latest brewing technologies and traditional techniques has led to more nuanced variants, with a deepening of the taste element known as umami—the glutamate that gives the drink its savory, brothy quality—and a far more careful balance of acidity and sweetness. In other words, the production of sake has become rather like winemaking, with the same emphasis on terroir. “Sake can now be drunk with any cuisine,” Lemoine says. “I would dare to say that it has become fashionable again in Tokyo.” —Lawrence Osborne

Click through to read sake expert Sebastien Lemoine’s short list to excellent and diverse sake-centric counters throughout central Tokyo.