Atsuo Sakurai made sake for companies in Niigata and Akita, Japan, for 10 years, earning the designation of first grade master brewer from the Japanese government. But all the while, his real goal was to open his own brewery, free from his country’s rigid strictures. (Japanese eaters and drinkers tend to resist change to culinary traditions, and the country’s laws bind sake makers—those who can even get a difficult-to-obtain brewing permit—to certain time-honored procedures.) Early last year, Sakurai realized that dream, when he began brewing in his garage in the unlikeliest of places: Holbrook, Arizona, not far from the ancient lands of his wife’s people, the Navajo. Arizona Sake was born.
“The Arizona climate is very good to brew,” Sakurai says in careful English. “I think it’s better than Japan.” The Sonoran dryness keeps everything “pure” and “clean.” That’s crucial to Sakurai’s style of sake, junmai ginjo, a simple variety that allows for the use of only rice, water, yeast, and koji (a fungus used in making sake, miso, and soy sauce). He runs a simple operation, churning out 50 gallons at a time and producing only 10 batches in his first year. Still, bottles of the wildly aromatic, potently floral brew are already showing up in the best restaurants in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson.
“I try for the best, best quality of sake,” Sakurai says. “My goal is to make a good product in the U.S.A.” Sakurai is one of many brewers who are bringing the art of sake-making stateside. Below, check out four more of our American-made favorites.
This brewery, which earned a 2017 James Beard semifinalist nod, opened in Oregon to take advantage of the Willamette Valley’s high-quality water. SakéOne makes three lines of the beverage, including the lightly flavored Moonstone line: junmai ginjo infused with Asian plum, pear, or coconut and lemongrass.
These urban brewers believe that sake tastes best when it’s at its freshest, so they create batches of their flagship unpasteurized Sequoia every 45 days; no-heat pasteurization allows for bolder flavors and smoother sipping. The sake comes from Sacramento Valley rice, Yosemite water, and an heirloom strain of koji. The brewery’s slightly downmarket line of pasteurized sakes, Coastal, is available in three varieties and will keep for longer.
Todd Bellomy sources Yamada Nishiki, an elite sake rice, from Isbell Farms in Arkansas, the only grower of this glorious grain in North America. Bellomy, who has lived in Japan and studied swordmaking, brews two kinds of sake with his partner, Daniel Krupp: a sweet, cloudy, unfiltered one and another that uses two strains of yeast.
New York City
The Big Apple’s first sake brewery debuted this March in Brooklyn’s Industry City, featuring rotating draft sakes and exclusives you can taste only there, such as cloudy, rich orizake, which is served warm; fresh-pressed shiboritate; and active-fermentation moromi.