Sake is finding a new fan base for “cup sake,” drunk straight from the single-serving container it is sold in.
The boom among the younger generation is countering the traditional image of “oyaji no sake” (old man’s sake) for the drink sold in 180-ml bottles or glass cups with metallic pull tops.
The industry is hoping this trend will spark growth in sales and put an end to sluggish business seen in recent years.
The types of the traditional brewed rice wine that are available in glass cups include “junmai shu,” so-called pure-rice sake, which uses no adjuncts for fermentation other than rice and yeast, and high-grade “ginjo shu,” a delicate and fragrant brew.
The number of restaurants and bars offering cup sake is growing, while bottlers are coming up with a little ingenuity to produce attractive labels.
One way people can drink such sake is to head out to trendy standup bars like a place called buri in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.
Hisae Iwakura, who runs buri and calls herself its “okami” (proprietress), offers about 30 different kinds of cup sake.
“I wanted to have a place where adults could socialize,” she said.
A customer in her 30s said some women decide which cup sake to drink according to the design of the label, adding that it has changed her perception of sake. Iwakura, for her part, said she offers the different varieties at the same price, so that her customers can find the ones they like.
Meanwhile, Yoshimori Kimura, owner of the Ajino Machidaya Corp. liquor store in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, is striving to popularize sake among young people, hoping they will pick up the drink if it is packaged in a less intimidating single-serving glass or bottle rather than the traditional 720-ml or 1.8-liter bottles.
He was one of those who sensed a crisis when “shochu” — a spirit most commonly distilled from sweet potatoes, rice, barley or corn — outstripped sake in popularity.
Kimura said a cup or small bottle of sake can be bought for 200 yen to 300 yen — just the right amount for those who want to sample the drink at an affordable price.
As of summer 2004, he only had two kinds of cup sake for sale. Now he offers more than 60 after urging brewers to market the beverage in small containers.
Kimura said he advised some brewers on taste and label design, adding the store currently sells more than 15,000 small bottles and cups of sake a month.
Tajima Syuzou Co. in Fukui Prefecture is one of brewers that followed Kimura’s recommendation to produce cup sake. Until then the company sold ordinary cup sake locally, but it started making high quality “junmai,” “ginjo” and “dai ginjo” brews in 180-ml bottles.
President Tokuhiko Tajima said the company successfully marketed the different types within a month of launching production.
“I thought those kinds of sake were suitable for cup sake because the way we prepare them, by exposing them to air, increases the flavor and brings out their mild taste,” he said.
Sales are satisfactory and he is thinking about diversifying the range further.
Many sake distillers across the country are beginning to put more emphasis on cup sake production, but due to limited production capacity they cannot mass produce them even though they are receiving increasing numbers of inquiries.
Amid the growing popularity of sake in a glass, the first “Japanese sake champions cup” was held in Tokyo on Nov. 6, with 110 distillers putting 187 different kinds of products on display.
Ginjo Hitohana Gurasu made by Sawanotsuru Co. in Kobe won the top prize.
Takuya Karino, representative of Sake Bunka Institute Inc., which sponsored the event, said many people like sake but do not go as far as buying it themselves. He said cup sake provides distillers with an opportunity to create new sake enthusiasts.