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Japanese executive interview

2022.8.30

Bringing Japanese sake and Dassai to the world with a strong will to go beyond common sense Hiroshi Sakurai, Chairman of Asahi Shuzo Co., Ltd.


This is an executive interview conducted by Mio Shimamura, CEO of Premium Japan, featuring executives from companies with unique brand stories. Through the products and services they create, as well as their corporate philosophy, we will unravel the essence of the ``Japanese sensibilities'' and ``Japanese aesthetic sense'' that their brands express.

 

This time, we spoke to Hiroshi Sakurai, chairman of Asahi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., which produces the sake ``Dassai,'' which is popular both domestically and internationally for its highly aromatic flavor that is made by thoroughly polishing the sake rice and eliminating any off-flavors.



How a local underdog became the world's sake and Dassai

 

Dassai is a sake made by polishing high-quality Yamada Nishiki, known as the "king of sake rice," to a depth of 23% and retaining umami in an unprecedentedly refreshing taste. There is probably no one who has not heard of that name.

 

“Dassai is my life.”

 

Mr. Sakurai's family business, Asahi Sake Brewery, used to rank at the bottom in terms of sales among local sake breweries. Most of the sake they produced was low-priced, so-called everyday sake.

 

"I was a complete loser in my hometown. I couldn't survive in the local market, so I had to find a way to survive outside of my hometown."

 

In that case, you can't compete with ordinary alcohol. Mr. Sakurai, who had his sights set on the market outside the prefecture, especially the Tokyo market, made a major shift in the production of Junmai Daiginjo. However, Junmai Daiginjo is made by being particular about the rice used as the raw material, and shaving the rice down to less than 50%. At that time, there were few sake breweries and there was almost no market for Junmai Daiginjo, which required a lot of work and was expensive.

 

“None of the tojis we had at the time had ever made it, and no one believed in Junmai Daiginjo in the first place.Eventually, the tojis left us as well.”

 

Even so, when I asked him why he was aiming for Junmai Daiginjo sake, he answered without any hesitation.

 

"Because it's delicious. It's absolutely delicious. Even with Daiginjo, you can make something with a strong aroma, but with Junmai Daiginjo, the volume of that deliciousness comes out at a low alcohol content. After all, Junmai... I thought I would stick to it.”



Mr. Sakurai Mr. Sakurai

Mr. Sakurai says he doesn't care about fashion. However, he is particular about suits.



It was in 1976 that his father suddenly passed away and Mr. Sakurai took over. After peaking in 1973, the industry itself was beginning to shrink.

 

``When alcohol was selling well, it might have been better to just make cheap and intoxicating alcohol.At first, I tried a lot of things, and there were some alcoholic beverages that the distributors thought would sell well. Or, other companies will start selling similar products at a lower price because they won't sell any more. I thought that such a company would not have the stamina to do so."



Innovation that comes from creating alcoholic beverages that we believe in

 

We make sake that we believe is delicious without being deterred by the opinions of those around us. What we need to do to achieve this is to achieve a rice polishing ratio of 20%, which is the highest in Japan, and to do all the brewing by employees without a brewer, in order to maintain the quality of the sake and continue to employ employees. This resulted in a series of challenges and reforms that overturned the industry's preconceived notions, such as making sake brewed all year round instead of just in winter, and planning products in a high price range.

 

"We are often called innovative, but we couldn't have survived without doing that. I don't think anything really good would be possible without marketing or technique, but with a strong will and desire to do something."

 

His style of breaking conventional wisdom and his success through bold decisions sometimes generate opposition and resistance.

 

``I've been told things like ``overthrowing Dassai,'' and ``I can't believe you make a 20% and 30% worth of sake.'' In a sense, I'm happy that people see me as a rival. But on the other hand, it means I can't join them. I feel lonely, but even if you say that, it's still a good drink.WorkI will never change my desire to create sake and have customers drink it."



Dassai Junmai Daiginjo Polished 720% 5,500ml XNUMX yen Dassai Junmai Daiginjo Polished 720% 5,500ml XNUMX yen

It has a gorgeous fragrance and a taste that feels faintly sweet like honey when you put it in your mouth. The aftertaste lasts for a long time. Dassai Junmai Daiginjo Polished 720% 5,500ml XNUMX yen

 



The starting point is not to sell, but to make good alcohol. Price is proof of determination

 

After Dassai, the number of high-priced sakes increased, and the range of styles and flavors of sake expanded, both in terms of the market and consumer preferences.

 

``I think it's a good thing that there will be more alcoholic beverages in the high price range, not just because they're popular but also because they have the quality that comes with them.However, for us, it's scary to charge high prices.No matter what happens, This is proof of our determination to provide quality that is backed by this price.”

 

The young employees, with an average age of about 30, are responsible for this important sake brewing process. As a manager, he pays close attention to how they work, and recently made headlines when he increased the starting salary for university graduates in the manufacturing department from 21 yen to 30 yen.

 

``Most of the employees who join the company are in charge of manufacturing, not sales. Dassai's philosophy is to start with manufacturing and sell it, rather than sales.And when they reach retirement age, I want to be a company that my family will say is a good company to work for."



We also focus on building relationships with the farmers who use the sake rice that is our raw material. Starting in 2019, we will be holding a contest called ``Yamada Nishiki Project that Exceeds the Best'' to award the highest quality Yamada Nishiki. The grand prize rice will be purchased for 1 yen per bale, for a total of 50 million yen, more than 3,000 times the amount.

 

“Our sake cannot be made without Yamada Nishiki, but the quality of rice is influenced more by the skill and motivation of the maker than by the terroir of the field in the case of wine.However, the reality is that the amount of rice consumed is decreasing, and farmers are unable to envision their future. I started this project to give these farmers dreams and hopes."

 

In the past, the Grand Prix has been awarded to farmers outside of Yamada Nishiki's famous production areas. This is a project that will allow both Dassai and its farmers to move forward into the future by producing high-quality rice that has been recognized for their steady efforts even though it is not a famous production area.

 

A look at the 2021 contest. The grand prize went to Masato Takada from Okayama Prefecture. A look at the 2021 contest. The grand prize went to Masato Takada from Okayama Prefecture.

A look at the 2021 contest. The grand prize went to Masato Takada from Okayama Prefecture.



Toward DASSAI that surpasses Dassai. Builds a sake brewery in New York

 

Asahi Shuzo, which currently accounts for half of its sales overseas, is accelerating a project in New York.

 

In 2017, they partnered with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), a top-class culinary university in the United States, to build a sake brewery in the suburbs of New York, and began producing sake overseas in addition to exporting.

 

``I've always said that if we really want to internationalize Japanese sake, we need to start producing it locally overseas.For example, wine is not only made in France, but also in Japan, the United States, and Australia. As a result, it became global.Although it may be an extreme thing to do, we thought that we should be willing to abandon the name ``Sake''. I never thought I would have the stamina to become a professional.But when I was approached by the CIA, I decided to take on the challenge.''

A sake brewery that serves as a production base in New York. There is also a tasting room and a space where you can watch brewers make sake. A sake brewery that serves as a production base in New York. There is also a tasting room and a space where you can watch brewers make sake.

A sake brewery that serves as a production base in New York. There is also a tasting room and a space where you can watch brewers make sake.



The sake brewery, located in the lush green city of Hyde Park on the outskirts of New York, is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2022. Of course, we produce the highest quality Junmai Daiginjo. The alcoholic beverage, which will be brewed using Yamada Nishiki from Japan and Arkansas and water from New York, will be called "DASSAI BLUE" and will be released in 2023.

 

The origin of the name is the phrase ``The honor of indigo (blue comes out from indigo and is bluer than indigo)''. It is said that the American Dassai has the meaning of wanting it to surpass the Japanese Dassai.

 

This year, we also signed an official sponsorship agreement with the New York Yankees. ``When I saw the name ``Dassai'' next to the back screen at Yankee Stadium, I was a little moved,'' said Sakurai. In addition to the stadium signboards, Dassai will be served in some premium seating areas, further spreading the flavor.



The "Dassai DASSAI" logo is displayed next to the back screen. Scheduled to be posted until the 23 season. The "Dassai DASSAI" logo is displayed next to the back screen. Scheduled to be posted until the 23 season.

The "Dassai DASSAI" logo is displayed next to the back screen. Scheduled to be posted until the 23 season.



A sense of beauty lies in the unrelenting effort that is not shown on the surface.

 

Mr. Sakurai, who is promoting Japan's highest quality alcoholic beverages to the world, what does he think about Japan's aesthetic sense?

 

``Japanese food may seem simple at first glance, but there is a lot of effort behind it.In Japanese cuisine, sashimi is simply cutting and serving fish.However, it is difficult to know which part of the fish to cut. The taste changes depending on the angle at which you cut it and how thick you cut it.It may seem very simple, but hidden behind it is a delicate and unrelenting effort. I feel that

 



Looking back on the past, he says, ``Since I started making Junmai Daiginjo and entered this world, I haven't faced any hardships yet.I have come this far with continuous surprise and excitement as to why it sells so well.I am truly happy. "I think so," Sakurai said. The unwavering path to Dassai's success behind those words is perhaps the embodiment of his sense of beauty.

 

Asahi Shuzo's slogan is ``We seek sake to enjoy, not sake to get drunk or sell.''

 

Rather than resting on our laurels with the market in front of us, we do not seek temporary impetus from trends or the times; instead, we pursue the deliciousness that we believe in. I look forward to the future of Dassai, which will continue to expand based on the firm foundation of Mr. Sakurai's aspirations.



We talked with Shimamura, publisher of Premium Japan, who also handles PR for ``Asia's 50 Best Restaurants'', about the trends of Japanese chefs. We talked with Shimamura, publisher of Premium Japan, who also handles PR for ``Asia's 50 Best Restaurants'', about the trends of Japanese chefs.

Shimamura, the publisher of Premium Japan, who also handles the promotion of ``Asia's 50 Best Restaurants,'' talked about the trends of Japanese chefs.



Hiroshi Sakurai

Chairman of Asahi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. Born in 1950 in Shuto-cho (now Iwakuni City), Yamaguchi Prefecture. After graduating from Matsuyama University of Commerce (now Matsuyama University) in 1973, he trained at Nishinomiya Sake Brewery (now Nippon Sake) and joined Asahi Sake Brewery in 76, but he had a conflict with his father, his predecessor. I left the company. Following the sudden death of his father, he returned to the family business in 84 and rebuilt the business around the development of Junmai Daiginjo ``Dassai''. Current position since 2016. He pursues deliciousness through innovative methods such as seasonal brewing by his employees without the use of a chief brewer, and has broken the industry's conventional wisdom and achieved growth. In April 2018, we opened a joint store with Joel Robuchon in Paris. A brewery is currently under construction in Hyde Park, New York (scheduled for completion in 4). In 2022, he received EY Entrepreneur of the Year Japan award and was selected to represent Japan, earning him international recognition as a manager.

 

Mio Shimamura

Representative and publisher of Premium Japan. After working at a foreign advertising agency, he held positions in charge of marketing and PR at top brands such as Walt Disney, Harry Winston, and Tiffany & Co. In 2013, he founded Russo Co., Ltd. He handles PR for various top brands. Because his parents' home was an environment that taught Japanese culture such as tea ceremony and kimono dressing, he acquired the business rights to Premium Japan in 2017 and established Premium Japan Co., Ltd. in 2018. Appointed to current position in 2019 due to business alliance with Amana Co., Ltd.

 


Text by Yukiko Ushimaru
Photography by Toshiyuki Furuya

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