As people across the globe toasted the New Year this month, Japan's sake brewers had another reason to celebrate. The industry saw modest increases in sake sales, offering a glimmer of hope to producers who have watched consumption decline since the late 1970s. According to the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association (JSS), shipments rose to 601,807 kiloliters in fiscal 2011, marking the first increase in 16 years. The figures for 2012 appear to be slightly higher, leading sake expert John Gaunter said. While Gauntner and other insiders warn that it is too soon to talk of a comeback, he remains optimistic.

"[The increase] will be less than 5 percent, and that is barely clear of margin-of-error range. But we will take what we can get," he wrote in the most recent edition of his monthly Sake Education Council newsletter.

Meanwhile, exports remain strong. The number of sake shipments overseas in reached 14,013 kiloliters in 2011 — roughly double that of the previous decade. While 2012 exports are unlikely to exceed this all-time high, trade statistics from the Ministry of Finance show record growth in markets such as South Korea.