Big Splash: Award-Winning Sake Brewer Lands in Northern Arizona

Sakurai’s sake has a very good reputation. “It’s very good,” Konishi said. “People think very highly of it.”

Arizona winemakers have been gaining recognition and acclaim for decades with vineyards and tasting rooms in the Verde Valley, Willcox, Sonoita and Elgin that’s been coupled with a boom in craft breweries across the state.

Now, a new player is 44-year-old Atsuo Sakurai, a Japanese immigrant. He is making a name for himself as a small-batch brewer of premium sake, also mistakenly known as rice wine.

Brewing sake is far different from making wine from grapes but Sakurai’s Arizona Sake business in Holbrook adds to the diversity of Arizona producers of wine, craft beer and distilled spirits.

Holbrook is a high desert city of 5,000 people near the Navajo Reservation that’s best known for Petrified Forest National Park, Wigwam Motel and other relics of Route 66, the Hash Knife Pony Express Ride and vast deposits of helium nearby.

Arizona Sake, founded in 2017, has earned international praise and shined a spotlight on Holbrook with national media reports.

Making a good sake, we should be creative but at the same time stick to the tradition,” Sakurai said.   

Arizona Sake was awarded a gold medal at the 2018 Tokyo Sake Competition for the Best Internationally Produced Sake. Sakurai also won the Best of Class Award last year in the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

That recognition has helped Sakurai sustain his sake brewery in a building on old Route 66 the size of a two-car garage. He is practically a one-man band as a toji, or sake brewer, except for help from his family and a friend.

For me it is a successful thing, regardless if my business is bigger or smaller,” said Sakurai, who carefully chooses his words in English as a non-native speaker.   

Eventually [the business] gets bigger, but that’s not my goal. My goal is my labor. My work makes people happy.”

Sake production in North America is a relatively new industry, with just a few dozen commercial brewers on the continent and most of them only in business for five or six years, said Westin Konishi, president of Sake Brewers Association of North America.

Sake accounts for only 0.2 percent of overall alcohol consumption in the United States and about $44 million in annual sales, Konishi said. And as far as he knows, Arizona Sake is the only sake brewer in Arizona.

Sakurai’s sake has a very good reputation. “It’s very good,” Konishi said. “People think very highly of it.”

Sakurai’s path to bringing sake to Arizona spans 5,800 miles across the globe from his hometown of Yokohama, Japan, to Holbrook. It involves his love of sake and a Navajo woman from Holbrook, whom he met in 2007, while leading a tour of a sake brewery in Akita, Japan.

When they met, Heather Basinger was teaching English and Sakurai was trying to learn English at night after 14-hour shifts brewing sake.

I was brewing. I was in production. I did marketing, research, lab work but mainly brewing.”

Soon, Sakurai and Basinger were meeting with her friends for karaoke nights. It was a refreshing change from the older colleagues Sakurai worked with making sake. His mentor was Ito Tadashi, now 75 and retired from brewing sake.

Sakurai and Basinger got married in Japan in 2009 and started their family. They now have two sons, 10 and 13, and a daughter, 11.

The family moved to Holbrook in 2014. Using his savings from brewing sake in Japan for a decade, Sakurai started Arizona Sake three years later. The business was sustainable from the beginning, he said.

Initially, he did most of the work himself but now has help from distributors delivering his sake to stores and restaurants around Arizona. That includes Holbrook, Flagstaff, Prescott, Sedona, Verde Valley, Tucson, metro Phoenix and Bisbee.

In Holbrook, Arizona Sake is available at a few stores, including Hatch Quick Stop and West End Liquor Store. A clerk at the liquor store said she goes through cases of Arizona Sake.

I have people who buy four bottles at a time to try it or send it out as gifts,” she said.

Arizona Sake is sold at Park Plaza Liquor in Prescott. In Flagstaff, Sakurai’s sake is sold at Majestic Marketplace, Mountain Spirits Co. and Flagstaff Liquor. Flagstaff restaurants serving Arizona Sake include Brix, Lotus Lounge and Hiro’s Sushi Bar. FBN

By Peter Corbett, FBN

Photos by Peter Corbett: Atsuo Sakurai, founder of Arizona Sake, shows off a bottle of premium sake at his Holbrook brewery.    


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