Sake-based cocktails lead to new converts

JIJI

Yukimi Isomura smiled after sipping a cocktail based on a traditional drink she had never liked.

The resident of Handa, Aichi Prefecture, had avoided sake because she considered it dry. But the tasting event organized last month by Nakano Sake Brewery Co. has changed her opinion of Japan’s traditional tipple completely.

“It’s sweet and tastes good. I can drink this!” she exclaimed after imbibing the sake-cassis liqueur cocktail.

The local maker served up six kinds of sake-based cocktails at the free event held at its Kunizakari Sake Culture Museum. It had never done anything like that before.

“We want to have new sake fans, particularly young adults and women,” said Akihiro Ohashi, curator of the museum.

While the popularity of “nihonshu” is growing overseas, sake is struggling at home. According to the National Tax Agency data from fiscal 2012, domestic consumption of sake had fallen to just a third of its peak in 1975.

Nakano Sake Brewery is not alone in resorting to cocktails as a new way to drink sake. Environment Development Planning, a Tokyo bar chain, has developed 17 brands of special sake designed for cocktails with breweries across the country.

Unlike labels on traditional bottles of sake, those on the new Motozake brands feature English.

“The labels were designed to help the bottles fit in at Western-style bars,” said Toshiharu Yamamoto, who is in charge of the Motozake operation.

Many of the new brands use sake made only from rice, with no added sugar or alcohol. The alcohol content is around 15 percent.

“The Motozake brands taste delicious even when they are drunk straight,” said Yamamoto.

In Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, long-established brewery Hirase Shuzo-ten is promoting a sake-based mojito made with locally grown pepper. It hopes Japan’s many “izakaya” (pubs) will offer up the cocktail as a substitute for those traditionally made with “shochu,” the popular distilled spirit usually derived from potatoes.

Targeting women, a group of cooking specialists has opened a Web site called the Nihonshu Cocktail Propulsion Project that lists cocktail recipes featuring colorful, healthy ingredients including yogurt and mango jam.

“We’ve developed recipes for cocktails that look cute and are easy for women to drink,” said project planner Takahisa Inoue. “I hope the project will encourage people to begin drinking sake.”