A New Spirit Seeks to Boost Japan’s Sake Industry

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June 29, 2022

HIROSHIMA — As the number of domestic sake breweries in Japan declines, a company in Hiroshima Prefecture has developed a new drink to help revive the industry.

Naorai Inc., based in Kure, uses a patented technique to make a distilled beverage from sake which it brands as Jo-Chu, Purified Spirit.

Although its name sounds like shochu – the Japanese spirit distilled from ingredients such as barley, brown sugar, rice and sweet potatoes – Naorai puts its Jo-Chu in a category of its own.

“I wanted to develop a drink similar to whiskey that gains value as it matures,” said Naorai chairman Koichiro Miyake, 38.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Naorai’s Jo-Chu, left, and Kohaku Jo-Chu, flavored with the peel of organic lemons that it grows on the island of Osaki-Shimojima in the Seto Inland Sea

The company leased an unused sake brewery in the city of Jinsekikogen that is owned by a 160-year-old sake brewer who stopped production about seven years earlier. Naorai has partnered with five breweries in Hiroshima and Shimane prefectures, using their sake to make its regular Jo-Chu and Kohaku Jo-Chu, which are aged in wooden barrels and flavored with lemon peel grown in the Seto Inland Sea.

About 10% of the sake made by the Yamaoka Sake Brewery in Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture, goes to Naorai for the production of Jo-Chu.

“It would be great if the appeal of sake was conveyed through new ways to enjoy the drink,” said Katsumi Yamaoka, the brewery’s fourth-generation president.

In fiscal 2019, there were 1,130 sake breweries in operation, half the number operating 30 years earlier, according to data from the National Tax Agency. Small and medium-sized breweries account for 99% of the total, with around half in the red or barely making a profit.

“I hope to work with more companies to boost the industry,” Miyake said.

Naorai is headquartered in the Seto Inland Sea on the island of Mikadoshima, which has a population of around 20. The company also has a base on the neighboring island of Osaki-Shimojima, where it grows and processes lemons that it grows without using chemicals with the help of a local organic farmer. The company hopes this facet will also attract people to the island.

Miyake, whose great-grandfather founded a sake brewery in Kure, was exposed to the industry from an early age. He was motivated to promote sake overseas amid plummeting domestic sales and an increase in the number of breweries closing their doors. Since 2011, he also sells sake in Shanghai.

While freshness is key to making great sake, Miyake came up with an idea for a new whiskey-based drink. He worked with an expert to develop a low temperature distillation process, 35 C to 40 C, to avoid spoiling the aromas and flavors of the spirit. Miyake patented the technique in 2019 and launched Jo-Chu in 2020.

Naorai sold approximately 3,000 bottles of Jo-Chu in fiscal 2021 and aims to double that figure in fiscal 2022.

“The goal is to create a business model that will help revive the sake industry in Hiroshima, and then expand that model to preserve breweries and sake culture nationwide,” Miyake said. “We also want to expand the market by promoting the flavor of this new drink around the world.”

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