At 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday in Milan — the height of the aperitivo hour — the courtyard of the stately Chiostri dell'Umanitaria building was filled with people sipping drinks.

As the late-afternoon sun splashed over the trees, the scene was bathed in the warm and familiar glow of incipient intoxication. But instead of Negronis or spritzes, this well-heeled crowd was drinking sake, at the first edition of the Milano Sake Festival. The two-day event, which took place in September, drew a mix of restaurant-industry professionals, sake neophytes, Japanophiles and fashionistas in town for Milan Fashion Week.

"I don't know much about sake, but this is fun," remarked a woman in her 30s, sampling a sake-based umeshu from Gifu Prefecture. Beside her, a man wearing aviator sunglasses and a tightly fitted yellow shirt picked up a bottle of Awasaki sparkling sake from Kobe Prefecture and nodded approvingly. A young man with a hipster goatee held out his tasting cup at the next table. "I'd like to taste the classic styles first," he announced with confidence.