THE SAKE UNDERDOG TRIUMPHANT
HIROSHI SAKURAI REVELS IN RICE-WINE SUCCESS.
In 1984, at the age of 34, Hiroshi Sakurai took over his failing family business — a small rural sake producer located deep in the mountains of Yamaguchi Prefecture. The company, Asahi Shuzo, had been producing sake for more than 200 years, but was now on the verge of bankruptcy. Sake production had gone into global decline. From a peak of 1.675 million kL (about 442 million gallons) consumed in 1975, the sales figure would continue to drop to a low of 589,000 kL (about 156 million gallons) by 2010.
Against this backdrop, Sakurai managed to overcome the odds and transformed his struggling underdog company into a global luxury brand. Central to his success story was the decision to cease production of the ordinary-quality Asahi Fuji sake that the company was known for, and focus exclusively on the production of high-end junmai daiginjo-shu sake. Asahi Shuzo launched its flagship product, Dassai, in 1992 — made with rice that had been milled to just 23 percent of its original size.
“I didn’t know whether we would make it," said Sakurai in an interview with Nippon.com. "But one thing was clear — I knew we absolutely had to make a go of it in Tokyo. There was no way we could survive by staying local.”
He went door-to-door between retailers and restaurants trying to create interest in his sake, eventually getting a foothold in the city. In 2002, he expanded overseas, first in Taiwan, then in the United States the following year. Asahi Shuzo’s finest sake is now available in 18 countries worldwide, including Britain, France, Hong Kong and Dubai.
In 2015, at a state dinner at the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama made a welcoming toast to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe using junmai daiginjo premium sake made by Asahi Shuzo. Prime Minister Abe had himself grown up in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Sakurai's company is based, meaning that the globally respected brand represented not only a national but also a local success story, celebrated internationally.