The State of Sake Amidst COVID 19: Part 2


Thanks for tuning in to Part 2 of our special focusing on the current impact of COVID-19 on the sake and shochu industries. If you haven’t yet listened to Part 1, where we interview a number of significant individuals with unique perspective on the industry here in Japan, that’s a great place to start. You can find that here.

Slightly different from Part 1, this particular recording is more discussion-based. This time around several of your regular Sake On Air hosts, including John Gauntner, Sebastien Lemoine, Christopher Pellegrini, and Justin Potts, share anecdotal insights from their own experiences over the past several months. While our experience is by no means any be-all-end-all “official” word on where things stand, we hope that it will contribute further perspective, as well as provide some additional food for thought.

In addition to the impact of COVID-19, we also touch upon the serious flooding that has battered the Kyushu region throughout the month of July, only adding insult to injury in already incredibly trying times. This is impacting the livelihoods of the locals, as well as producers across both the shochu and sake industries.

If any listeners are keen to donate and contribute to the relief efforts still very much underway, please contact us at questions@sakeonair.staba.jp and we’ll be happy to provide you with a few potential options. As all of these activities and the information related to them are being conducted in Japanese, it makes it hard for the international community to support. If you’d like to help, let us know how we can help you.  

While all of us in Japan are now generally free to roam at this point, this particular conversation took place online, with John joining us from the U.S., where he’s been grounded since the early days of all of this, Christopher and Sebastien joining us from their respective locales in the heart the Tokyo metropolis, and Justin tuning in from his home Chiba countryside.

For this conversation, do feel free to pour yourself a glass or two of sake or shochu (or both) and settle in with us. After the show, we’d love to hear from our listeners about their experiences over the past several months all across the globe, so do feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook at @sakeonair, or mail us at questions@sakeonair.staba.jp.

Thanks so much for joining us across this special two-part series. As this is an ongoing challenge affecting everyone, we’ll very likely revisit this topic again six months or a year from now. While the hurdles to overcome are high any many, we’re all guaranteed to learn a lot through this process together. We look forward to helping keep you informed along the way.

We’ll be back to our regular programming in two weeks.
Until then, Kampai.

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

The State of Sake Amidst COVID 19: Part 1


This week, we’re bringing you a double episode exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the sake industry here in Japan, and how that impact is beginning to reverberate through the international market.

The entire nation of Japan, while never undergoing a formal lockdown, was officially placed on State of Emergency status as of April 7th, a state which continued until May 31st, with the country gradually easing restrictions in phases over the several weeks that followed, leading to a complete reopening on June 19th.

During this period, restaurants and izakaya were requested to limit their hours of operation from 5am to 8pm, while closing all alcohol service by 7pm. This, combined with the request for the entire population to refrain from unnecessary travel, as well as shift to teleworking in all instances possible, transformed how people shopped, dined, and of course, accessed and consumed sake and shochu. As you might have guessed, for many breweries, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants, sake and shochu stocks became largely idle for months on end.

While sales numbers have been gradually recovering since June, the number of people testing positive for COVID 19 have also been on the rise as of late, with Japan now experiencing what at this stage might be considered a “mild second wave.” As a result, dining establishments have again been asked to curtail their hours of operation for the month of August, closing by 10pm, with particularly dense dining and entertainment districts in parts of Osaka being asked to cut back their hours of operation even further.

These front-line sales tend to get a lot of attention, however it’s the beverage’s deep agriculture ties, along with the particular timing of the pandemic which might result in a truly devastating fallout down the road. We discuss this as well.

To be honest, there’s still a lot that we don’t know. The impact from the past 6 months isn’t truly going to manifest itself for some time to come, and how the pandemic will develop both in Japan and internationally is, at this point, still anybody’s guess.

However, we do feel a responsibility to sake lovers around the world to share what it is we do know, which is why over the past couple of months we’ve been conducting a series of short interviews, as well as discussing this reality amongst ourselves, in order to help paint at least somewhat of a picture as to where we stand as of the end of August 2020.

For Part 1, we’ve edited together a series of excerpts from five different interviews that we conducted with individuals here in Japan who are in a position to offer particular insight into the impact COVID-19 on certain pockets or channels of the sake and shochu industries. Our guest include:

・Yoshiro Okamoto – Vice President of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association
・Koichi Saura – President of Saura Co. Ltd. (makers of Urakasumi) and co-chairman of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association
・Takahiro Ibaragi – Head of the International Sales Division at Nihon Shurui Hanbai
・Sam Mitsuya – Owner of Mitsuya Liquors
・Shinnosuke Hiramatsu – Retail Sales Office at Imadeya

When you’re done with this episode, Part 2 is already live, so you can jump over and continue this exploration whenever you’re ready. For Part 2 we bring your regular hosts Christopher Pellegrini, John Gauntner, Sebastien Lemoine, and Justin Potts together to anecdotally discuss the experience of the past six months. We hope you’ll find it to be an interesting supplement to the first-hand perspective provided in this episode.

Between this and Part 2, we’ve left you with a lot to digest over the next couple of weeks. There’s still a long road ahead, but we’ll be in it for the long haul. We hope you’ll stick with us. If you’re looking for a great way to support, there’s always one:

Keep kampai-ing.

Part 2 is here.
We’ll see you in two weeks.

0:00:21 Introduction
0:05:17 Yoshiro Okamoto – Vice President of JSS
0:12:47 Koichi Saura – President of Saura Co. Ltd. (Urakasumi), Co-chairman of JSS
0:29:00 Takahiro Ibaragi – Head of International Department at Nihon Shurui Hanbai
0:41:48 Sam Mitsuya – Owner of Mitsuya Liquors
0:57:15 Shinnosuke Hiramatsu – Retail Sales Office at Imadeya
1:16:27 Closing

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

Natsuzake is Summer Sake


While this summer has certainly been a lot of things for many of our listeners, we hope that one thing which has been a defining mainstay throughout the summer of 2020 has been sake.

Summer is gradually winding down a bit at this point, but we thought it was about time we did a (semi-)timely episode that celebrates the sake of the season. For summer, that’s natsuzake. Literally “summer” (natsu) “sake” (zake), this relatively recent entry into the seasonal release calendar has rapidly garnered fans from across the sake-sipping spectrum and the annual releases have turned the category into one that grows and evolves dynamically every year, birthing more unique products and interpretations of the style than even the most dedicated follower of sake can hope to keep up with.

Although no one particular property defines what is (or isn’t) natsuzake, profiles commonly trend toward things like bright flavors, lower ABV, slight effervescence, a gentle palate, and general qualities that tend to require refrigeration or ice cubes (or both), lending to relatively sessionable sake. As a result, if you can get your hands on the stuff, it often tends to be a great entry point for a lot of new drinkers into the sake category itself, as well.

This week Chris Hughes is joined by Rebekah Wilson-Lye and Marie Nagata, where they cover the history of the summery beverage, its evolution, definitions (and its accompanying ambiguity), personal experiences and suggestions, and more.

Go ahead and put a bottle on ice and slide into a patio recliner to beat the heat with us on this week’s episode of Sake On Air.

When you’re done, go ahead and  drop us a review on Apple Podcasts, or reach out to us at questions@sakeonair.staba.jp. You can follow our current limited movement on  InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, or join us over on YouTube, as well.

Thanks for listening and we’ll be back with more Sake On Air in a couple of weeks.


– Rebekah uses the term “kanzake” occasionally to refer to sake brewed in the winter while discussing traditional sake brewing practices and seasons. For our regular listeners, you may have heard this word before in an entirely different context. Note that this is not actually the same word. The terminology that Rebekah uses is actually a less-common term for what is often referred to as “kanzukuri”.
Prestige Sake Association comes up while discussing its role in developing the natsuzake product concept.
Ajinomachidaya, a sake shop and wholesaler located on the west end of Tokyo, near Nakano, also comes up in referencing the development and proliferation of natsuzake.
– The Sake Cellar ideal for storing your natsuzake.
– Big thanks to Takahiro Nagayama of Nagayama Shuzo (Taka) and Yusuke Sato of Aramasa Shuzo (Aramasa) for their support when preparing for this episode.

Sake On Air is made possible with the generous support of the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association and is broadcast from the Japan Sake & Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. The show is a co-production between Export Japan and Potts.K Productions, with audio production by Frank Walter.

Our theme, “Younger Today Than Tomorrow” is composed by forSomethingNew for Sake On Air.

Sake Event Schedule (Oct-Nov 2019)


The Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center is home to a slew of sake-centric events all throughout the year. On occasion, we like to pool that info together in one place to share with our listeners so that locals are in-the-know and lucky visitors don’t miss out on a great opportunity to further (re)discover exciting realms of sake, shochu and awamori.

Sake Salon #23 – Fushimi Sake Night

  • Date: October 28 (Mon)
  • Time: 19:00-21:00
  • Location: Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center
  • Guests: Tokubei Masuda (President of Masuda Tokubei Shoten, makers of Tsuki no Katsura brand sake), Yukihiro Kitagawa (President of Kitagawa Honke, makers of Tomio brand sake)
  • Seats: 30 people
  • Details: Event will include presentations from both breweries along with tastings and light food to accompany.
  • Registration: HERE

Shochu Day Celebration w/ Live Jazz

  • Date: November 1st (Fri)
  • Time: 19:00-21:00
  • Location: Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center
  • Guests: YoYo the Pianoman
  • Details: Celebrate International Shochu Day with open tastings of over 30 varieties of shochu and awamori accompanied by live jazz.
  • Reservation: HERE

Sake Salon #24 with Urakasumi

  • Date: November 7th (Thurs)
  • Time: 19:00-21:00
  • Location: Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center
  • Guest: Benoit Champagne (International Sales Representative for Saura Shuzho, makers of Urakasumi brand sake)
  • Seats: 20 people
  • Details: Event will include presentation from Mr. Champagne along with a selection of tastings from Urakasumi and light food to accompany.
  • Registration: HERE

Sake and Finnish Food Event

  • Date: November 22nd (Fri)
  • Time: 19:00-21:00
  • Location: Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center
  • Guests: Representatives from the Finnish Embassy in Tokyo
  • Details: A special event to commemorate 100 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Finland. Enjoy a selection of sake together with various light fare representative of and inspired by classic Finnish cuisine.
  • NOTE: This event will be hosted and conducted primarily in Japanese. Non-Japanese speakers are more than welcome to attend. Please just note that English language support will be limited.

Serving Up Sake


Across a pair of recent episodes of Sake On Air, Wolfgang Angyal, CEO of the Riedel company  in Japan, has prepared a brilliant workshop, an opportunity to understand Riedel’s methodology for devising and determining the shape of a glass vessel, as well as sample a selection of sake in Riedel glasses (wine glass, daiginjo glass, junmai glass) … and a traditional guinomi

The tasting setup during the recent Sake On Air recording at Riedel Japan in Aoyama

The point was not to settle upon what is “best” for sake, but about experiencing how the choice of the vessel impacts the tasting, through a number of factors:  temperature, position of the head and shape of the mouth, flux, aromatic intensity.

As a follow-up to the recent episode, I wanted to to take a moment to reexamine some of the things we know about the history of sake-related glassware in Japan.

Until the beginning of the 18th century, glass had to be imported into Japan. Remember that this transparent material is not part of Japanese traditional architecture. While the first glass material was probably brought in from Korea, there are signs that an active glass-shaping craft took root across the Japanese archipelago, to produce comma-shaped beads for example, whose design is unique to Japan (one of the imperial regalia) and Korea, as early as during the Yayoi period (300BC to 300AD). 

In the 8th century, one of the Silk Roads’ branches was ending in Nara, the then Imperial capital of Japan. The Shosoin Treasure Hall has splendid and precious glass-made drinking and serving ware which arrived from Persia around this time.

From the 16th century, Portuguese, Spanish then Dutch merchants brought European glassware into the country through their Nagasaki trading post (including wine glasses, bottles and decanters for daily use). Japanese were enthralled by such products, and glassware soon became popular items for upper class society.

Japanese started manufacturing glass in the 18th century using Chinese knowledge and technique, with the inspiration of Western design. By that time, the first Riedel family member had entered into the trade of luxury glassware in Europe, in Northwest Bohemia.

At a recent exhibition of selected inspiring ancient craft at Suntory Museum in Tokyo, glassware actually had a remarkable presence. I remember a gorgeous sake ewer with a handle and small series of beautiful blue, freely blown sake bottles dating from Edo times (1600-1868). They were almost perfect in shape, although not identical, showing that no mold was used. In addition they do not show the scar of the pontil rod, a tool used by European glass makers, that facilitates the production of blown glass. Such a rod enables the artisan to work on the mouth or handle of the piece while holding the shaped glass from the bottom. Because such technique was unknown in Japan, one can understand that these blue bottles, produced in large quantities, required considerable skill from the artisan! These bottles are known as “bidoro”, coming from the Portuguese work “vidro” (glass).

The first book describing glass making in Japan was published in 1829. In 1834, artisans developed a beautiful cut glass technique in Tokyo (known as Edo kiriko; Edo was the name of Tokyo before the Meiji Restoration), followed by Kagoshima in 1851 (known as Satsuma kiriko; Satsuma is the pre-Meiji name of the Southern Kyushu region, the name of the ruling clan). Satsumo kiriko is well known for its magnificent transparent red material (color produced by copper), and diverse motif compositions. European cut glass (Bohemia, England …) influenced the design, however, as often is in the world of arts, local craftspeople went one step further and developed a unique style. The Satsuma glass making workshops were burnt to ashes during the Anglo Satsuma war of 1863. Glass making was restarted in 1872, with beautiful objects sent to the Imperial Household, however specialists judge that Satsuma kiriko never fully recovered from this 10-year long interruption. The exhibition presented this boat shaped bowl with a bat on the stern (a symbol of good fortune), its wings outspread, and a tomoe motif (yin-yang double interlocking comma) on the prow. It probably had different usages, including this of a haisen, a bowl filled with clean water, placed between people drinking together, so that one could rinse (i.e. clean) the sake cup before passing it to the other.

In 1910, Gekkeikan, a dynamic sake brewer from Fushimi (in Kyoto) introduced a small transparent bottle in the shape of a tokkuri, with an attached ochoko cap made from the same material, which was sold to passengers at train stations of the government-owned railway authority. According to the brewery, it gradually expanded nationwide over a few years, contributing to spreading the Gekkeikan brand, eventually becoming Japan’s largest sake producer. Until railways unlocked Kyoto sake from the former Imperial Capital’s limits, Nada sake (Kobe today) was the dominant sake “exporter” to the economic and political capital Edo. Today we can find sake bottles in many different colors. From the sixties, brown and green became most popular. Gekkeikan introduced brown sake bottles before 1927, to protect the drink against ultraviolets.

Gekkeikan pushing the envelope

The use of large glasses, and stemware in particular, was inspired by the wine culture and is a recent phenomenon. Stems are rarely seen in Japanese table arts. The tradition remains influenced by the low tables where multiple plates are placed next to each other. 

More to come on Sake On Air.

– Sebastien –

Reference: 1998BriefHistoryOf JapaneseGlass

Follow up to “Talking Terroir” (EP 18)


On a recent overseas sake promotion project guiding wine experts around breweries in Japan, one term that popped up more times than I care to remember was terroir. Not from the wine experts, but from the breweries, who were using it in their marketing spiel.

However, what I later learned from the feedback of the participants is that very few were really using the term correctly. They were claiming there was a terroir where perhaps there wasn’t. I realized that in the sake world, the concept, if it even existed, or needed to exist, was blurred. Many breweries think that throwing in words from the wine world instantly makes their sake more familiar overseas, but in reality, very few people really relate to or understand these buzzwords that they are using.

Where does ‘terroir’ start from?

Despite having recently acquired a high-level wine qualification, I myself didn’t have a perfect grasp of the terroir concept. As you may have noticed in this podcast, I couldn’t even pronounce the word properly. I learned that there is even a debate in the wine world about the true definition of terroir. If the wine world is still not sure what terroir is, then surely its adoption by the sake world is a little premature. The more research I did on the topic, the more it became clear that the timing was right to get a podcast on this topic out in the open.

The intention was never to conquer the topic in one episode. This episode is simply laying the groundwork for future exploration. I went into this podcast on the fence about terroir. And I remain on the fence. Terroir definitely helps the smaller breweries stand out, but I am not sure it is the right word they should be using to talk about what is essentially just regionality.

We didn’t really talk much about the protective purpose of terroirs with regards to geographic indications, etc., but this always felt to me like an entirely different debate. Some of our listeners may already have made their mind up about the terroir of sake, but whatever your feelings about this topic, I definitely think more debate and more analysis is needed before we jump to any conclusions. In future episodes, I think we will need to include more insight from the actual brewers and representatives of the wine world to help flesh out the discussion. 

No Rice No Life

Directors cut: we also talked about the relationship between local cuisine and sake, Japanese beer production, and the concept of jizake, but these segments all sort of felt like they lost focus a bit, so they didn’t make it into the final cut. We may (likely) revisit any or all of these one day.

– Chris H. (aka Big Chris) –