Exports of Japanese sake have grown in step with the global Japanese cuisine boom, setting a record high for the 13th consecutive year in 2022.
The continuing boom, with shipments surging 18.2 percent last year to 47.4 billion yen (about $340 million), is also fueled by younger sake brewers targeting a more upscale market with premium products and taking steps to foster a sake culture overseas.
At a modern brick-and-mortar brewery in Tosa, Kochi Prefecture, western Japan, Hirokuni Okura, the fourth-generation president of Suigei Brewing Co., poured a glass of Daito, its ultra-premium "junmai daiginjo" sake.
"This is popular and known overseas for its pet name 'Drunken Whale,'" Okura said of Suigei. "Drunken whale" is also the literal meaning of the two characters used in the company's name.
Okura, 44, joined Suigei, founded by his grandfather, 10 years ago after working for a major beer brewer.
Utilizing his marketing experience gained at his former employer, Okura went bottle in hand to the United States, directly promoting Suigei's products.
The new label design of a whale's tail has become easily recognizable to American consumers and helped the company become a roaring success. Exports by Suigei rose to more than 200 million yen in fiscal 2021, up from just 20 million yen in fiscal 2013.
Okura focused on branding and introduced Daito, the brewer's high-end sake. "People sometimes say a wine is inexpensive even if it is priced at 10,000 yen. I wondered why sake is priced so cheaply," Okura said.
A 720-milliliter bottle of Daito costs over 20,000 yen but is finding its way into an increasing number of overseas Japanese restaurants. Customers particularly enjoy it with their meals.
Last year, Clear Inc., an emerging brewer in Tokyo, served its "Byakko" high-end brand, priced at nearly 40,000 yen per 720-ml bottle, at a Lamborghini luxury car event for wealthy people in Qingdao, China.
"Not only the taste (of Byakko) but the bottle and box were designed with a sense of luxury," said Ryuji Ikoma, the chief executive officer of Clear, which plans to begin full-scale exports of the sake this year.
Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Co., the largest exporter of Japanese sake, has continued to insist on only brewing its products in the Nada district of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, a premier sake brewing area in Japan. In contrast, other major companies in the same industry have launched overseas production.
The number of countries and regions to which Hakutsuru ships has expanded to 56, and its export value has risen 60 percent in the past three years. A new product, a junmai daiginjo called "Niku," was developed to pair with the world-famous Kobe beef.
"Sake is usually considered compatible with seafood dishes. But we want to promote the fact that it also goes well with meat dishes," said Masayoshi Matsunaga, head of Hakutsuru's overseas business department.
According to the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association, while domestic shipments continue to decline, overseas demand has grown steadily. Exports have increased five-fold over the past decade, and the average price has more than doubled.
China was the top export destination in 2022, with the United States in second place. The drink's popularity, however, is also spreading to South Korea and Southeast Asia.
There are hurdles to further expansion of demand. China has imposed restrictions on food imports from Fukushima and nine other prefectures due to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident. Shipments of famous sake from Niigata, a region renowned for its sake production, continue to be blocked.
"Overseas, there is still little understanding of sake and in some cases, storage methods are inappropriate," Hitoshi Utsunomiya, a board member of the association, said. "We would like to further raise awareness by providing sommeliers with the correct knowledge and other innovations."