The World's Best Sake
Made Outside of Japan
*Gold Medal Winner - 2018 Tokyo Sake Competition
*Gold Medal Winner - 2019 Los Angeles International Wine Competition
Yokohama, Japan native Atsuo Sakurai, the only First-Grade Sake Brewer in the United States, spent 10 years in the sake industry in Japan before launching his own sake in Holbrook, Arizona.
Customer Review of Arizona Sake – J.W.
If you had asked me to guess where Arizona’s first commercial sake kura (brewery) would be located, I would have guessed maybe, Tempe? Scottsdale? Or perhaps new-agey Sedona, artsy Jerome or Bisbee? Sonoita, Willcox, Verde Valley, Arizona’s Wine Country? Tucson? Maybe Flag? Probably not Mesa.
Except for ruling out Mesa, I would have been flat wrong. The answer is, Holbrook. Holbrook, Arizona. I am sitting here sipping from my favorite ochoko (small sake cup) a really nice, ice cold junmai ginjo sake. From Holbrook, Arizona. And it’s delicious.
Arizona Sake touts itself as “Arizona’s 1st Sake,” and the bottle I am enjoying contains a small-batch sake, handmade by “Japanese craftsmanship.” Like any premium junmai ginjo, the taste is smooth, a bit dry (which I love), a little bit fruity, with just a tiny bite and no burn. It’s just really good.
Arizona Sake brings a new play to the sake game: herbal infusion. The bottle contains little stems of “Navajo Tea.” I Googled Navajo Tea and learned that it is the desert plant known as greenthread. The greenthread stems add an unmistakable high desert vibe to the sake. Without the herbs, I am sure this would be a nice, very drinkable sake. With the herbs, every sip is a trip to the high desert. After a bodacious summer thunderstorm has just passed through. If you know, you know.
This sake is a metaphorical bridge between Arizona and Japan. A solid premium Japanese sake that invokes the high desert.
There are more than 1,600 licensed sake kura in Japan. There is now one in Arizona, and its sake is delicious. And that’s a good thing.
Holbrook, Arizona: Cowboys and Indians and Sake?
Holbrook is right on Interstate 40 (formerly Route 66), near the northeast corner of Arizona, not far from the New Mexico border. Holbrook was once known as the town “too tough for women and churches.” That tells you a lot about Holbrook and its rough-and-tumble Wild West history.
Four Corners is not far, Gallup is the next big town heading east, and Winslow, Arizona, made famous by the Eagles’ hit “Take it Easy,” is about a half an hour to the west. (The song could easily have gone “I was standin’ on a corner in Holbrook, Arizona ….”)
When you think of Holbrook, Arizona, you think of Old West movies. You think of Native Americans, rodeos, fry bread, turquoise and silver jewelry, and gorgeous Navajo rugs.
You think of pickup trucks, cattle ranches, horses, and cowboys and cowgirls. Big skies and big winds. And tumbleweeds. Lots of them. Just like an old Western movie.
Holbrook is a place to get a great steak, some real Mexican food, and now, in my opinion, a really tasty sake that would pair well with both.
I just took a sip and imagined a dusty John Wayne-type cowboy in his white cowboy hat and boots, exiting his F-150 and swaggering into a Holbrook saloon. He bellies up to the bar and announces, “Barkeep, I’ll have your best Arizona Sake. Leave the bottle. And don’t forget my ochoko.”
It could happen.
Who Am I?
A bit about me: I grew up in Arizona (my family moved to Tempe from Pennsylvania when I was 15). My mom taught at Arizona State and my dad worked for Greyhound in downtown Phoenix.
After graduating from the University of Arizona, I went to Japan to teach. It was supposed to be only for a year. One year turned into eleven.
It was in Japan that I (naturally) developed a taste for sake. I started with the hot stuff (“atsukan”) but soon learned that best quality sake is not served hot in a carafe. It’s served cold, and sipped from ochoko. Or even better, it’s served overflowing in a glass nestled in a wooden box called a “masu.” And you don’t shoot sake. You never shoot sake, unless you have to dash, like, right now. Because a process server has tracked you down with legal papers, and you need to scoot out the back door post haste.
You sip sake. You savor it. You take a sip, have a bite of food, tell a quick story, and take another sip. That’s what sake is for. Sake is a social lubricant, not a way to get blitzed.
Sake is a world treasure. I think. If not, it really ought to be.
I am not a sake expert. I have learned a lot about sake, mostly from friends who are in the business. I have been lucky enough to tour functioning sake kuras that are normally off-limits to the public. I have read about sake, and attended sake conferences. I have learned the importance of the milling of the rice, the yeast, the quality of the water, and the intangible magic that the “toji master” (master brewer) brings to the process. For example, the word “junmai” simply means “no alcohol added.” The alcohol in a junmai, like the one I am sipping from Arizona Sake, is solely the alcohol created by the yeast used to brew the sake in this bottle sitting before me. Nothing added. Other lower-quality sakes, especially those served hot, add alcohol towards the end of the brewing process. Often that alcohol is a grain-based alcohol. It gives low-level sakes that burn, and contributes to headaches the next morning. In fact, the heating process used to prepare atsukan is designed in part to burn off some of that nasty added alcohol and make the sake easier to down.
Fun fact: premium sakes, enjoyed in moderation, produce little to zero hangovers. Truth.
I have to admit Holbrook has never been a destination for me. A good place to stop and gas up when you are driving from Las Vegas to Albuquerque. It is a destination now, thanks to Arizona Sake.