Meet the Maker: Atsuo Sakurai of Arizona Sake
There are certain crafts that require an artisanal touch and an experienced set of skills. In our "Meet the Maker" series, we dive into the worlds of Arizona's most skilled culinary artisans. This article takes us to Holbrook to meet Atsuo Sakurai of Arizona Sake.
Yokohama, Japan and Holbrook, Arizona. Two destinations with nothing in common. Yokohama, with a population of 3.7 million, is a bustling port city on the Pacific Rim. Holbrook is a quiet town on Route 66, home to 5,000 people at last count.
But now the places are linked in a way no one ever imagined. All thanks to a Japanese maker named Atsuo Sakurai.
Yokohama native Sakurai settled in Holbrook in 2014 and began making his native country's most well-known beverage—sake, or Japanese rice wine—out of a garage. Not only has he seen huge success (chefs, restaurateurs and distributors snatch up Sakurai's sake as fast as he can bottle it), but he's received some of the highest honors in the Japanese sake world.
Case in point: In 2018, Sakurai's product, Arizona Sake, was awarded the title "World's Best Sake Made Outside Japan" at Tokyo's Sake Competition. Incredibly, Sakurai had only received his license in January of 2017; Arizona Sake won the award within 18 months of its existence.
Sakurai also received a special commendation from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, making him the first Japanese person to receive the honor. Local and national media have featured Sakurai, including a recent segment on National Public Radio.
Sakurai brewed sake in Japan for 10 years while dreaming of starting his own sake business.
"I was looking for an opportunity, but in Japan, they are very strict," he explains. "They don't issue new licenses to new people. If you have a million dollars, you can purchase a business, but I didn't have a million dollars. I needed to start my business from scratch."
Sakurai's wife, Heather, hails from Holbrook. The couple met while she was teaching English in Japan. Because starting a company in Japan was near impossible, Sakurai and his wife moved to Seattle, but after a few start-up attempts, the couple found they didn't have enough money to launch a business and afford to live. They moved to Holbrook in 2014.
"Everybody asks me, why Holbrook?" Sakurai says. "From a distribution point of view, it's horrible. Every big market is far from here."
But Holbrook offers certain advantages for sake making. Sakurai says the region's cold, dry temperatures help with the fermentation process by keeping out moisture and all the bad stuff it brings with it—germs and fungus, for example.
The science of sake
Sakurai makes his junmai ginjo sake in small batches out of his garage, where he produces 50 gallons at a time. He uses traditional ingredients like rice, yeast, water—specifically, Arizona water—and a (good) fungus called koji. He attributes the flavor of his sake to the fact it's unfiltered and unpasteurized, giving it a pure taste. But the recipe is a secret.
"All I can tell you is that it is made with passion," he says.
In the garage, the tanks are filled with fermenting sake, giving off a fruity aroma reminiscent of apples and bananas. After three weeks of fermenting and filtration, the sake is bottled and labeled, and several hundred are ready for delivery. Each month, Sakurai loads up his pickup truck with the bottles and drives to Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and other markets.
"I'm driving for a week or two weeks," he explains. "I have no delivery driver. I want to meet people in person. That's the fun part. When you actually see someone in person, that makes the business work."
Sakurai hopes to expand Arizona Sake, not only outside of the state but also outside of the country. But getting to that point takes time—Sakurai needs to find a distributor and an importer, and research the tax and customs processes. For now, expanding his business locally is a way to give back to the community.
"My dream is that no matter how big or small my business is, I want to build friendships," he says.
Where to find Arizona Sake (restaurants)
Fujiya Market (Tempe)
Glai Baan (Phoenix)
Hidden Track Bottle Shop (Phoenix)
Hot Noodles Cold Sake (Scottsdale)
La Grande Orange (Phoenix)
Nobuo at Teeter House (Phoenix)
Roka Akor (Scottsdale)
Sachiko Sushi (two locations)
Sushi on Oracle
Karma Sushi (Flagstaff)