It has a deep, delicate and definitely cultural flavor. Yet sake does not appeal to many of today’s Japanese, who would rather clink glasses of “shochu” liquor or wine.

Japan consumed 889,271 kiloliters worth of sake in fiscal 2002, down from 1,368,831 kl in 1992 and almost half the volume they gulped down in 1973, when consumption peaked at around 1,656,000 kl, Finance Ministry figures show.

Countless reasons have been cited for sake’s sagging popularity, ranging from the longtime production of sugared and artificially flavored low-grade sake, to the recent shochu and wine booms, the latter characterized by the brisk sales of Beaujolais Nouveau, and the fading gift-giving culture.

But the biggest problem could be sake’s image as an old man’s drink, said Masafumi Masuda, a journalist who decried the industry’s decline in his book published in September.

“Even though there is some really good-tasting, top-grade sake, you can’t possibly imagine a (young) couple in love sitting at a table with a bottle of sake between them and talking amorously to each other,” he said.

Abroad, however, sake, especially the high-grade variety, does not have a bad image because it is a relative novelty.

The 1990s Japanese food boom in the U.S. and Europe actually made it stylish and exotic overseas.

Because it has become trendy overseas, exports of sake grew to some 8,270 kl last year.

While the shipments still make up less than 1 percent of total consumption, Yuichi Hashiba, the 36-year-old vice president of Izumibashi Shuzo Co., a small brewery in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture, said he hoped the growing exposure of sake overseas would shed new light on the traditional brew, which dates back 2,000 years.

Izumibashi, established in 1857, was one of the stops made by a group of European journalists touring the Kanto region in November under the government-sponsored Visit Japan Campaign, aimed at doubling the number of foreign tourists. Sake brewery visits featured prominently in the weeklong tour.

“Japanese are easily affected by what foreigners say of Japan,” said Hashiba, whose company Web site now lists information in 15 languages.

The brewery began shipping abroad — to London — this summer.

“It’s a new image for sake at home — rather than growth in sales abroad — that we are actually hoping for,” Hashiba said.

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