New sakes promoted to young drinkers in Japan

This year's sake brewing season has begun, and newly harvested rice is being shipped across the nation. Although Japanese sake has a deep-rooted image as a drink for middle-aged and elderly men, new varieties have appeared on the market in recent years, with sparkling sake and sake cocktails especially popular among young people and women.

Sake-tasting events are also popular.

There are just over 1,700 sake breweries in the nation, each producing a distinctive product. Domestic shipments of sake have been on the decline - according to an interim report by the National Tax Agency, domestic shipments edged up in fiscal 2013 from the previous fiscal year to 587,000 kiloliters, but that was still only about 40 per cent of the fiscal 1993 level.

However, the popularity of sake among women and young people has been gradually rising.

According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry's household expenditure survey in 2013, spending on sake has increased 90 per cent from 2011 in households with at least two people and in which the head of the household is in their 20s.

Among households in which the head of the household is in their 30s, spending increased 20 per cent from 2011.

The Bishu-katsu festival, a sake-tasting event exclusively for women, was held in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 27.

About 1,000 participants visited the booths of the 25 sake breweries that organised the event, and enjoyed tasting their products.

Tatsuya Kawagoe, a famous chef of Italian cuisine, presented cooking recipes at the festive event that go well with sake.

It was the third time for the event to be held, and organizers said its scale had been significantly increased due to the high number of applicants in the past.

The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association has also held seminars for women since 2005.

Participants learn the history of sake and brewing methods, and can also visit breweries to observe the production processes and taste sake.

The association has sometimes had to choose participants by lottery because applicants exceeded capacity. A conspicuous number of the participants were in their 30s, it said.

Sake breweries are also offering fashionable products that are easier to drink, including sparkling sake. Many of the new products are sweet, and their alcoholic content is lower than that of conventional sake, which is generally about 15 per cent.

Takara Shuzo Co. released sparkling sake in autumn 2013 across the nation. A 300 mililiter bottle of the brand, called "Shochikubai Shirakabegura Mio Sparkling Seishu," is priced at about 475 yen (S$5.65), not including consumption tax.

The brand's alcoholic content is 5 per cent, the same level as that of beer. Company officials said the sparkling sake has a strong acidic flavor, and so is suitable as an aperitif or to drink together with chocolates and other rich sweets.

Kizakura Co. initially produced its sparkling sake brand, Stars, for export to the United States and Europe. In Japan, bottles the same size are priced at 430 yen each.

In February this year, the company also began selling the sparkling sake domestically. It has a mildly acidic, refreshing flavor.

Supermarket stores and convenience stores also sell sake in fashionable, fancy bottles. Most are about 300 mililiters in size and cost about 500 yen to 700 yen each.

Sake works well in cocktails, too. The Nihonshu Cocktail Propulsion Project, an organisation mainly composed of women studying cooking techniques, has about 60 cocktail recipes that use sake.

They include "Maple Butter Shu" in which milk, butter and maple syrup are mixed in sake as the base, and the sangria-like "Nihonshu Guria" in which fruits are soaked in sake.

Makiko Tejima, who describes herself as a "stylist" of sake, said: "Rather than glugging dry sake, an increasing number of people want to leisurely enjoy drinking sweet sake. I recommend people search for their own ways to enjoy drinking sake."