Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, has long been known as a city of culture and good food. And the perfect pairing for the fresh seafood caught in the Sea of Japan, or even a geisha performance — two notable Kanazawa icons — is, of course, sake.

Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery, which has its roots in the Edo Period (1603-1868), is the oldest sake brewery in Kanazawa. First opened in 1625, it’s now the largest sake brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture, where its longest-running brand, Fukumasamune, is also the most popular sake.

The Maeda were an indomitable clan who ran much of the current Hokuriku region from the Sengoku Period (1482-1573) through the Edo Period. During the Edo Period, the Maeda ran their fiefdom from Kanazawa and were given high kokudaka (rice crop taxation rights) from the Tokugawa shogun. The city became prosperous, with multiple entertainment districts hosting geisha in chaya tea houses; master craftspeople making lacquer and kimono; and many noh and other theatrical performance venues springing up.

Of course, sake was needed for the many parties and rituals of the Maeda clan, which helped develop a robust sake culture. Fukumitsuya was an early brewery, and its sake made from water filtered through Mount Haku became the go-to sake in Kanazawa.

Packaging a cultural legacy: Fukumitsuya's Kagatobi-brand sake is named after Edo Period (1603-1868) firefighters. | KATHERINE WHATLEY
Packaging a cultural legacy: Fukumitsuya’s Kagatobi-brand sake is named after Edo Period (1603-1868) firefighters. | KATHERINE WHATLEY

Now, however, sake does not have the same importance that it used to. Sake breweries around Japan are struggling to stay relevant and popular in the face of alternative alcoholic drink options like beer and wine. In addition, as Japanese lifestyles change people do not need sake as much for religious and familial rituals.

Sake has come to have an “old man image,” Fukumitsuya press relations section chief, Ayano Okamoto, says. She believes that young people, especially women, don’t tend to choose sake because they see it as an old-fashioned, outdated drink. Fukumitsuya is trying to go against this image with both its products and its branding. “We market heavily toward women. We want them to feel interested in our products, and that sake can be for them,” says Okamoto.

Since 2001, Fukumitsuya has only produced junmai, sake made solely from water sourced from Mount Hakusan, rice and kōji (malted rice). Less-premium sakes have significant amounts of added distilled alcohol, a legacy of World War II when sake was heavily taxed and distilled alcohol was added to stretch the brew and make it cheaper. Currently, junmai and other premium sakes account for only 20 percent of the sake produced in Japan, and Fukumitsuya has chosen to make this more expensive, higher-quality product to try to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive market.

Fukumitsuya understood sooner than most sake brewers that it needed to reach a broader market in order to remain profitable. To do so, it started cashing in on Kanazawa’s rich cultural legacy. Its Kagatobi brand, which it primarily markets outside of Ishikawa Prefecture, is named after the firefighters that the Maeda clan sponsored during the Edo Period. In-store it sells made-in-Kanazawa pottery, crafts and food. Factory tours are held during brewing season from October through April, and tastings are offered at all of its stores throughout the year.

Kanpai: A recent sake tasting features a bottle of Fukumitsuya's Kagatobi-brand sake (front) and Inori to Minori sake with labels designed by Akira Minagawa. | KATHERINE WHATLEY
Kanpai: A recent sake tasting features a bottle of Fukumitsuya’s Kagatobi-brand sake (front) and Inori to Minori sake with labels designed by Akira Minagawa. | KATHERINE WHATLEY

Fukumitsuya also uses design and packaging to appeal to a wide range of consumers. Its stores in Kanazawa and Tokyo are stylish and modern. It frequently hires famous designers to create labels, such as Akira Minagawa, founder of the perennially popular Mina Perhonen fashion and textile brand. Minagawa created the minimalist label for the newly released organic sake line, Inori to Minori.

The company is also keen to expand its presence abroad. “We would like to increase our profit share from international sales in the coming years,” Okamoto says. Brewery tours are offered in English, and staff readily provide explanations about types of sake and sake culture. Fukumitsuya’s new approach seems to be working. “While the sake market in general is struggling, our company is selling more every year,” Okamoto continues.

The challenge for large sake breweries like Fukumitsuya is to remain up-to-date while staying true to traditional roots. But with more than 100 types of sake, food and cosmetics for sale, it almost feels like attempting to do too much.

A recent sake tasting at the Kanazawa factory offered everything from the Kagatobi Junmai Daiginjo, made with at least 50 percent refined rice, to a 10-year-old aged sake and specially formulated sake designed to mimic red wine. Although the breadth of options was admirable, the classic Junmai Daiginjo was the standout. Some of the new creations, like organic sake, an industry rarity, are very drinkable and present a necessary way forward for the pesticide-heavy rice and sake industry. Others, like the aged sake served in a special glass designed to enhance the sake’s aroma like a wine tasting, feel gimmicky.

Being unafraid to try new ways of reaching its customers has helped push Fukumitsuya from a regional sake powerhouse to an increasingly international brand. However, sticking to good-quality sake might be the key to remaining successful: Hundreds of years experience making sake from clear water and good-quality rice — that’s Fukumitsuya’s strength.

Ishibiki 2-8-3, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-8638; 076-223-1117; fukumitsuya.co.jp; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; guided brewery tours are available from Oct.-April, ¥1,000; nearest station Kanazawa; English spoken

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