It just didn’t compute when I first heard about a sake that was brewed in Arizona.
Even the name of the product itself, Arizona Sake, was a contradiction in terms, like jumbo shrimp, virtual reality or Utah Jazz. When I enjoy sake with my sushi, images of Japanese rice fields come to mind, not cacti and cattle.
But that was before I met sake brewer and fellow Arizona businessman Atsuo Sakurai, and I’ve since learned that several Tucson restaurateurs are grabbing up his bottles by the boxful.
Sakurai spent a decade in Japan studying at the side of his sake mentor, who he reverently calls “my Yoda, my Jedi Master,” learning about the delicate dance of rice, yeast, water and koji, a steamed rice that contains mold spores that are central to the sake experience. And when it finally came time to show the world what he was capable of on his own, Sakurai launched Arizona Sake last year from his small-batch sake brewery in— hold onto your hats—Holbrook.
“My wife is from Holbrook, so that’s where we decided to set up the business, and the climate and atmosphere there are actually ideal for sake production,” Sakurai told me on a phone interview from Japan where he was visiting family. “I think climate and atmosphere are as important as the ingredients in sake brewing,” he said.
There certainly isn’t an abundance of rice fields in Navajo County, so Sakurai sources his grains from elsewhere. But the water is as local as it gets, and he shared with me how much he loves Holbrook’s H2O.
The wisdom of the water notwithstanding, Sakurai knows that flavor is the ultimate story, and his sake is reportedly known to make best friends at both ends of the sweet and dry spectrum.
“It’s a complicated answer because it’s really both,” he said. “It starts off sweet yet finishes dry,” a versatility that seems to suggest one of the secrets behind his early success. He told me that this versatility also makes his sake a great match for many different foods, except for sweets in his humble opinion. “For me, it’s not the best choice to go with desserts like cakes and chocolates.”
Duly noted, sir. I’ll stick with the añejos for the nightcap.
“One of the other things that makes our sake stand out is that it’s not pasteurized,” he said, referring to what he calls an unnecessary step in heating the sake to increase its preservative potential. “We produce in super small batches, which keeps it fresh, and our customers appreciate that. Plus, we have close and personal relationships with our retail and restaurant customers, and that’s part of our passion as well.”
Arizona Sake, which Sakurai prefers to sip at the standard refrigerator temperature of 35 degrees, is available statewide and can be found locally at Ginza Sushi, 5425 N. Kolb Road; Sachiko Sushi, 1101 N. Wilmot Road; Sushi on Oracle, 6449 N. Oracle Road; and Sushi Zona, 5655 E. River Road.
I’m a big believer in the beers, wines and spirits that are crafted right here in Arizona, and just knowing that there’s a sake being brewed less than 200 miles from my home by a guy who has his own Jedi Master is enough to make me want to shout.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 a.m.