The Year of the Rat may also turn out to be the Year of Sake. Last year, exports of sake (Japanese rice wine), rose to the highest level since a passing miniboom 11 years ago.
Overseas, strong demand from the United States took up 30 percent of total exports, followed by 20 percent from Taiwan. Other expanding markets in Canada, Hong Kong and South Korea have also contributed to the upswing.
Despite this worldwide growth, sake still remains a very Japanese drink. All exports combined are equal to only 1 percent of domestic sake consumption.
Sake consumption in Japan has dropped steadily from its 1960s peak as import restrictions have relaxed and overseas products entered Japan’s lucrative markets. Nowadays, red wine is as common as sake at spring ”hanami” parties. Wine promoters successfully remodeled the image of wine to fit into any situation, not just European restaurants and French bistros.
With such competition, sake makers have already had to reinvent their image and learn to market themselves anew. Only recently have sake breweries started their own Web sites, an essential tool for any business in this worldwide-webbed age. The image of sake abroad has already started to establish itself. Sake has even made its way onto the wine lists of French restaurants. An increasing number of open-minded sommeliers recommend the flavor and texture of sake as an excellent complement to European cuisine.
Health benefits have been claimed for sake, allegedly preventing everything from cancer to senility, though this seems a stretch. No doubt sake is healthy in moderation, not only because of its natural and meticulous production but also because it is high in amino acids and nutrients.
A few Japanese airlines have also started to serve premium sakes alongside champagne and wine on international flights. That alone speaks of hope for sake’s future prospects.
Even with these steps forward, sake has yet to resolve its regional nature. Is sake a specialty item from specific localities or a product ready for mass export to the world? This question is one that many makers of Japanese products must answer. Maintaining the characteristics of local taste while making it accessible to other cultural standards is difficult.
Protecting local flavor while promoting it globally is no easy matter, but as the world becomes more interconnected, people become drawn into special tastes and diverse cultural traditions. It may seem ironic that Japanese diners have a good selection of red wine with their yakitori and French diners sip sake with their foie gras, but that is surely the way of the future.
To sip a little sake is to taste a lot of Japanese culture. Mention of sake drinking dates back to at least the third century. Sake was offered to the gods, used at official functions, and enjoyed at all kinds of celebrations from sumo victories to weddings — and still is. For one of the most commanding symbols of traditional Japanese culture to start showing up on tables around the world seems a marvel even in this age of global surprises. Sake’s unique qualities are something truly worth exporting.
source: Kyodo World Service
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