With over 1,500 sake breweries spread across Japan, authors Brian Ashcraft and Takashi Eguchi knew they would never have time to visit them all while writing “The Japanese Sake Bible,” a deep dive into the nation’s ubiquitous drink.
“I live in Kansai, so there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to how many great breweries with history are here,” Ashcraft says. “I visited well over 100 breweries across the country and Eguchi-san went to breweries in places like Brazil, Mexico and Taiwan. This was an expensive book to make.”
While there are extensive chapters on tasting notes, food pairings and in-depth explorations of the roles played by rice, water and soil, the heart of the narrative is the human side of sake production. “Sake is a business that’s all about families,” says Ashcraft. “I wanted to have these personal vignettes. We have the culture, the history and technical information, but it’s interspersed with these experiences of going into breweries and talking to people, and the impression you get from being in those spaces.
“There are so many great books in Japanese and English that are very technical and I wanted to have a lot of technical information (about sake production), but to balance it so it wasn’t just a textbook and was a livelier read.”
The book kicks off with the story of Toshio Taketsuru, the 14th president of Taketsuru Sake Brewery, a family-run company that has been in business since 1873. Part of his family’s legacy is that his ancestor, Masatake Taketsuru, is the founder of Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., Ltd. and is often credited as “the father of Japanese whisky.” Toshio’s story is an archetype that Ashcraft encountered more than once during his research. “When covering sake, you meet lots of young brewery owners who had plans to work outside sake brewing, but for whatever reason came back to their family brewery and perhaps even found greater success,” he says. Fathers putting pressure on sons; sons rebelling against fathers. A tale as old as time.
But Ashcraft is careful to avoid repetition. “I tried to clear the deck at the start with (Toshio) Taketsuru, so we discussed the pressure younger generations have. Sake is often a story of families, but I wanted to be careful to have a balance of people — young, old, men and women and then try to portray this totality of experience of what it’s like for them in the industry.”
Ashcraft goes into great detail about what it takes to make top-notch sake. Specifics such as which rice varieties are the best and the ongoing debate over exactly how much rice should be polished, are very much for the connoisseur with an interest in fine margins. For anyone new to the world of sake, these are perhaps a touch too nerdy. The detail provided could be enough to act as a guide for home brewing — except that home brewing is illegal in Japan: The book is replete with “don’t try this at home, kids” reminders.
The international appeal of sake and its future both in Japan and abroad is another major theme of the book, as one of Ashcraft’s goals is to “help normalize the drink” outside Japan. Richie Hawtin, an electronic musician and DJ who wrote the book’s foreword, is a big exponent of sake globalization through his ENTER.Sake project.
“It’s an ongoing project that hopes to elevate the awareness of sake culture by delivering repeatable high-quality sake experiences around the world in a contemporary setting and presentation,” Hawtin says. “Sake will remain niche if it’s only found in Japanese restaurants and Michelin-starred gourmet locations. Sake has the same potential as wine and champagne to sit comfortably on many different levels and in many different locations and be enjoyed by people of all ages (above the drinking age) from every country in the world.”
Sake expert Takashi Eguchi also saw signs for optimism during his travels researching the spread of sake culture. In countries with strong historical ties to Japan, such as Brazil and Taiwan, there is a definite market. “In Brazil, thanks to the sake cocktail boom during the 2000s, the demand for sake has increased,” Eguchi says. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, “the Wufeng brewery in Taichung produces premium sake that reflects both the regional as well as the established sake market in Taiwan. There are other breweries there in a similar position, which shows demands for high-quality local Taiwanese sake. However, they do have strong competitors: sake imported from Japan.”
Ashcraft is equally optimistic. “The spread of sake internationally is going to be dependent on producers in each country making local sake, because at that point it’ll no longer seem foreign, far off and abstract. The trickier thing is the infrastructure. Just getting kо̄ji, the different yeasts and brewing rice can be tricky.”
Within Japan, the sake industry’s future seems rosier than ever. Part of that is because the stereotype that sake is a drink favored predominantly by older men has been proved false.
“We don’t have sake events in person anymore because of COVID-19,” says Ashcraft, “but when I’ve participated at events in the past several years, I tended to see a lot of young women there. Seeing a noticeable number of young women tells me that the future of the drink is actually hopeful in this country because they tend to be tastemakers in Japan. If young women are into a certain TV show or support a celebrity, those things tend to do well.”
Read DJ Richie Hawtin’s foreword for ‘The Japanese Sake Bible’
Musician and DJ Richie Hawtin holds an Advanced Sake Professional certification and was named a “Sake Samurai” by the Japanese Sake Brewers Association in 2014 for his work in promoting sake culture internationally. Here is his foreword for “The Japanese Sake Bible.”
“The Sake Bible” launches at a crucial moment for sake as top chefs, sommeliers and enthusiasts alike are discovering this beautifully handcrafted beverage. Sake has been part of Japanese culture for over a thousand years and until recently you had to be an expert and make frequent visits to Japan to study and unravel the mysteries that are gathered together in this book.
As a longtime sake enthusiast, reading this book brings me back to my first trip to Japan. I soon realized that the sake I had tasted growing up in Canada had been very basic and rough. In Tokyo, strange oversized 1.8-liter (4-pint) isshobin bottles lined the windows and shelves of the local restaurants we visited, each decorated with beautiful labels covered with exotic motifs and unrecognizable characters. With every new bottle I realized no two sake were alike, discovering a surprising range of deep and refined flavors accompanied by fragrant aromas and subtle varying textures. Served in hand-crafted vessels, the sake gently supported the food, and the ritual of pouring for one another created a warm and communal feeling.
Those early experiences kindled my deep curiosity in sake, and as I returned to Japan each year for my DJ concerts, I visited breweries, talked with brewers, tasted local styles and learned as much about sake as I could. I started to fully appreciate the fine balance of tradition and modern technology that forms the basis of this refined, handcrafted and creative process.
As a musician who balances human intuition alongside electronic synthesizers and drum machines to write music, I found a wonderful parallel to the creative process of artisan sake. The attention to technical detail, the restricted ingredients and the astonishing resulting complexity, along with its heady intoxicating feeling, all reminded me of qualities that I strove to instill in my own productions. I was hooked, and just as I share my passion for music in my DJ performances, I set in motion a series of ideas that would allow me to spread my passion for sake to my fans and friends around the world.
This is where my intentions align with this book’s creators, in our mission to share our love and knowledge of Japanese sake with an international audience. In this book you’ll meet the men and women behind the sake: the families, brewery owners, master brewers and the staff, whose ingenuity, perseverance and dedication have continued the tradition and development of sake over generations. And you will learn how relatively simple ingredients become such a magic combination, creating the complexity and variety of flavors, textures and aromas that we all find so alluring in sake.
One of the most beautiful, and important, characteristics of sake is that it quietly enhances the flavors of food and actually pairs incredibly well with international cuisine. At tasting events around the world, I marry sake with regional specialties using local ingredients. From pasta and fresh cheeses in Italy, to seafood paella in Spain and delicate farm-to-table dishes at Michelin-starred restaurants, the versatility of sake is unparalleled and something I recommend everyone experiment with! I remember one particular dinner in Lebanon where guests were astonished and excited how well this foreign beverage paired with their flavorful and hearty cuisine. In combination with the sake, they were tasting their favorite traditional dishes in a refreshing new light. Imagine a creamy lentil pasta with spicy tamarind and juicy pomegranate served with a silky junmai ginjo. Delicious!
Sake already finds itself on the beverage list of fine restaurants around the world and is appreciated by their most discerning customers. And with no additives, premium sake is a natural fit for today’s health-conscious consumer. Sake really can be enjoyed everywhere and fits all social situations. Enjoy a rich junmai at your summer BBQ, sip a hearty genshu at a music festival, celebrate your birthday with a bottle of sparkling sake, or savor a delicate junmai daiginjo with your favorite dessert.
Whether you’re an enthusiast, an educator, a sommelier, a chef or simply enjoy the unique, warm feeling that sake delivers, “The Sake Bible” will take you deeper into the intoxicating world of Japanese sake.