Home Samurai culture Saving sake: How Australia’s thirsty market can help revive Japan’s national drink

Saving sake: How Australia’s thirsty market can help revive Japan’s national drink

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Strong points
  • Japanese sake consumption has shown a continuous decline since its peak in 1973
  • The popularity of sake outside the country has skyrocketed in recent years
  • Australia is the seventh largest market for Japanese sake and will host its first dedicated sake festival in October.
Japan’s alcoholic beverage market has been shrinking for years, driven by an aging population, declining birth rates and healthier lifestyle choices.
The pandemic has further accelerated the process, so the Japanese government recently launched the “Sake Viva” campaign, encouraging people to come up with ideas to help revitalize the industry.

Among the hardest hit industries is sake – the national drink, also known as nihonshu, made from fermented rice – consumption of which has been falling steadily since its peak in 1973.

Japan’s domestic alcoholic beverage market has shrunk Credit: xavierarnau/Getty Images

Hitoshi Utsunomiya is the president of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, a non-profit organization made up of producers from all over the country.

He says the 40 to 50 age group, traditionally considered “heavy consumers of Japanese sake”, has evolved.

“These people either choose to drink something other than sake or just drink less,” he told SBS Japanese.

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Hitoshi Utsunomiya, President of the Japanese Association of Sake and Shochu Makers Credit: Hitoshi Utsunomiya Credit: Hitoshi Utsunomiya

New markets

Despite the decline at home, sake’s popularity has skyrocketed elsewhere in recent years, offering a glimmer of hope to the industry.
According to data released by Japan’s National Revenue Agency in April this year, sake exports from January to December 2021 totaled AU$1.2 billion, surpassing AU$1.1 billion for the first time and marking an increase of 61.4% over the previous period.
Australia has also seen a steady rise in the popularity of sake, with imports from Japan more than sevenfold, from AU$10 million in 2009 to AU$73 million in 2021, making it the seventh most largest Japanese sake market in the world.
Tsuyoshi Endo recently hosted the first Australian Sake Awards and is set to launch the Australian Sake Festival in Sydney on October 1.
According to Endo, Japan’s young population is spoiled for choice these days, so sake may not be as appealing as it was decades ago.

However, he believes that markets like Australia, where recognition and awareness of sake is still low, have immense potential for improvement.

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Tsuyoshi Endo’s passion for Japanese sake led him to organize Australia’s first Sake Awards and Sake Festival. Credit: Endo Tsuyoshi

“There are many more delicious sakes that people should know about,” he says.

Sake should be better known. It should be given much more value.

Tsuyoshi Endo, organizer of the Australian sake festival

These thoughts led Mr. Endo to organize the first Australian Sake Awards earlier this month, which brought together more than 60 judges to select the sake best suited to the Australian market.

Mr Utsunomiya says such localized competitions are crucial for the industry, as people’s taste preferences can differ significantly from place to place.

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First Australian Sake Awards in Sydney, September 17, 2022 Credit: Hiroto Yamada

Sake Samurai

Leading the judging panel at the awards ceremony was Simone Maynard, who was recently ordained “Sake Samurai” – a title awarded by the Japan Sake Brewers Association’s Junior Council to those who show passion to promote the drink.
The Samurai Sake Order was introduced in 2005 to restore the “pride of sake” and promote Japanese culture, not only in the country but around the world.
There are currently around 100 sake samurai in the world, and Ms Maynard is the fourth Australian, after celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda, sake ambassador Andre Bishop and Deja Vu Sake Co.’s Yukino Ochiai.

Ms Maynard, who has had a “deep fascination and love for Japanese culture” from a young age, fell in love with sake when she first visited the country in 2003.

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Simone Maynard is Australia’s fourth sake samurai Credit: Simone Maynard

“I realized how versatile and varied it was. I continuously fall in love with sake,” she told SBS Japanese.

Based in Melbourne, she shares her knowledge and passion for sake through tasting experiences, masterclasses, paired dinners and collaboration opportunities.
Ms Maynard says it is “sad” to see the decline in sake consumption in Japan, but she also hopes the growing popularity overseas can attract a new generation of sake drinkers who will see how “this national drink is unique, important and wonderful”. .
She says the Sake Awards will help “solidify our place on the sake map” and create greater visibility for sake in Australia.

“I think it will also help strengthen the relationship between Japanese brewers and Australia.”

I hope people will have and keep an open mind when it comes to sake.

‘Sake Samurai’ Simone Maynard

“Just like wine, you may not like the first one you try or there will be some you like more than others. I want people to bury any misconceptions they might have about sake and understand that premium sake is a wonderful world to discover and explore,” she says.
The Australian Sake Festival is scheduled for Sydney on October 1, which is also World Sake Day.
Tickets for the event, which will feature some 200 varieties of sake as well as food and entertainment stalls, sold out weeks in advance.
Mr. Endo says he is “absolutely surprised” by the request.
He hopes to use the event to raise awareness of sake among the Australian public and cultivate long-time fans of the drink.
“Sake is a Japanese culture. I hope that by providing more touch points, consumers can deepen their understanding and enjoy Japanese sake.
In Australia, you must be 18 or over to buy or drink alcohol. When you drink, savor it in moderation.

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