Hoping to offset sluggish domestic demand, sake brewers are pouring their efforts into overseas markets, where a growing appetite for Japanese cuisine is helping to introduce the rice-wine beverage to a new audience.
Making inroads abroad is far from simple, however, and brewers face an uphill battle when it comes to wooing new customers.
The Rihaku Shuzo brewery, founded in 1882, has taken a creative approach to marketing. To make their products more accessible to foreign consumers, the brewery has given English nicknames, such as "Wandering Poet" and "Dreamy Clouds," to some of its Rihaku brand sake sold abroad.
"We cannot expect (foreign customers) to remember the Rihaku name," company President Yuichiro Tanaka said. "We hope these nicknames will give our products a friendly touch."
So far, the approach seems to be working. The brewery, based in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, shipped 320 kiloliters of sake last year. Seventy kiloliters went overseas, with 50 kiloliters bound for the United States, a sharp increase from less than 1 kiloliter about a decade ago.
"With domestic consumption in the doldrums, local breweries have been trying to increase their presence in Tokyo, but they face tough competition," Tanaka said. "We have to turn to overseas markets to survive."
Total exports from Japan hit a record high of 14,014 kiloliters last year, roughly double that of a decade ago, but they still represent just 2 percent of overall shipments.
Domestic demand, meanwhile, has been making only a slow recovery.
In fiscal 2010, Japan consumed 589,000 kiloliters of sake, roughly one-third of the 1.68 million kiloliters consumed in fiscal 1975, according to the National Tax Agency.
And though domestic consumption in fiscal 2011 increased from a year earlier for the first time in 16 years, an official at the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association said demand has not fully recovered.
In light of such dismal figures, the expanding international market is becoming increasingly important.
"Demand for sake has increased against a backdrop of a global boom in interest for Japanese food," an analyst at the Japan Economic Research Institute said.
In many countries, diners experience premium sake, such as "daiginjo" (very special brew), alongside Japanese cuisine, according to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).
Nearly 30 percent of exports go to the United States, followed by South Korea and Taiwan.
Many South Korean pubs have stocked up on sake with a low alcohol content, attracting a growing number of fans, according to JETRO officials.
Russia looks to be another lucrative market.
Japanese food is popular in the country, and Moscow alone has more than 400 Japanese restaurants, according to trading house Nisso Boeki Co.
Last year, the Obata Shuzo brewery, founded in 1892, exported sake to Russia on a full-fledged basis for the first time.
The sake, including the "junmai ginjo" (pure rice, special brew) of the brewery's signature Manotsuru brand, was offered at upscale Japanese restaurants and sold at high-end grocery stores.
Rumiko Obata, senior managing director, said Russia is a promising market, although export procedures are complicated. Despite the difficulties, Obata said the brewery, based in Sado, Niigata Prefecture, plans to increase exports to Russia three to five times in the current fiscal year.
Sake's popularity also got a shot in the arm when Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted he was a fan.
Putin ordered heated sake when he ate sushi with gold medalist judoka Yasuhiro Yamashita and others at an exclusive restaurant in Tokyo’s Roppongi district in November 2005.
"I like warm sake," Putin was quoted as saying. "When it's cold, heated sake will warm you up."
Yamashita said he often dines with foreigners, but few have developed a taste for heated sake.
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