The age of sake

Naoto Mizuno is on a mission to make Kokuryu internationally known and he is doing that by modernising operations and ageing his sake.

Since taking over from his father 10 years ago, the eighth-generation owner of the brewery in Fukui prefecture has renovated its 100- year-old buildings and introduced the latest production methods. "I love traditional Japanese buildings but we had to modernise them to keep them clean and free from contaminants," Mr Mizuno explains as he points to an elegant timber structure being gutted for new equipment and to optimise work flow.

Under his watch, production has increased 25 per cent to the equivalent of 500,000 1.8-litre bottles a year. This was made possible with a sprawling storage and bottling plant he built amid serene padi fields. Tankers convey the sake from the centuries-old brewery in the heart of town here, where it is transferred to giant vats and cooled.

The building opposite houses the automated bottling line, which includes a clean room that is pressurised to expel dirt - rare in an industry that still practises manual bottling methods. There is even a special machine to centre the label on the bottle below Kokuryu's embossed logo. But tradition is maintained with the continued use of Echizen washi (Japanese paper) for some labels.

While the majority of sake bottles sold in Japan come with screw caps, Mr Mizuno introduced the plastic stopper for Kokuryu because it is more air tight, to reduce the possibility of contamination. "The philosophy of making sake remains the same but to maintain the quality and to keep it safe to drink is not easy. We have to keep trying and modernising is the only way."

His ambition is to increase the world's awareness of the Kokuryu name, and he hopes those who love food and sake will come to visit Fukui and Kokuryu.

One way he believes he can attract people is with aged sake. Japanese sake is drunk fresh but he wants it to be like vintage wine. Kokuryu Ishidaya junmai daiginjo is aged for more than three years below zero degree Celsius but Mr Mizuno also has 20-year-old sake in his cellar.

"Wine has a lot of variety and vintages but sake doesn't have such a range of tastes," he explains. "I want to age sake to expand the sake world and foster greater appreciation of it."

His aim is simple - for aged sake to have the same clean taste as fresh sake. But the delightful difference is that as the sake matures, its flavour becomes milder with fruity notes and it gains complexity as the alcohol softens over the years.

This article was first published on Feb 28, 2015.
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