The (un)Importance of Place: An Interview with Arizona Sake’s Atsuo Sakurai

HOLBROOK, AZ – In dusty Northeast Arizona, a Japanese import is behind the 8-Ball, cranking out international-award-winning sake not nearly as fast as people would like to buy it.

People like the Japanese chefs in Tucson and Phoenix, diplomats at the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles and sake connoisseurs alert to his influence in a tremulous American Sake Naissance. They can taste in their glasses Atsuo Sakurai’s decade-long apprenticeship in Japan, which earned him the title of first-grade brewer, and has since earned him many awards for his take on the nearly clear fermented-rice drink, its own category apart from wine, beer or spirits.

Yet many find it hard to believe Sakurai is making world-class sake in tiny, nowheresville Holbrook, which is just close enough to Petrified Forest National Park and a small sliver of the Painted Desert to call itself a “gateway” to them, but otherwise has all the qualities of a small town teenagers dream of  leaving one day.** Yet less than two years after he set up shop here, in 2018, Atsuo’s Junmai Ginjo Arizona Sake took gold as the best international entry at the Tokyo Sake Competition.

Arizona Sake, like most sake, is clear until Arizona Sake maker Atsuo Sakurai adds things like prickly pear and navajo tea

To add to Sakurai’s overworked-load, an earnest food and travel blogger is on his doorstep, knowing just enough about sake to ask rudimentary questions, having read about him in Smithsonian a few weeks before, emailing to set up a meeting. He gamely agrees to pose for the same photo the magazine’s photographer took, in front of what some people call a brewery, but he calls a sake house. In the intervening few months, a couple of colorful murals dressed up what had been plain white siding on a boxy, near-windowless building. One is a Route 66 sign and the other a pictograph-heavy representation of Arizona that names just four cities: Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and tiny Holbrook, an example if ever there was one of nepotistic cartography.

Arizona Sake's building sports two murals, one of the state that shows three major metropolises and tiny Holbrook

It’s hard to imagine what Holbrook, Arizona might have in common with Niigata, Sakurai’s last Japanese address. A respected sake region, Niigata is mountainous and relentlessly snowy in the winter.

For a description of Holbrook’s climate, I will simply quote the Smithsonian writer, Richard Grant, because I’m not sure I can improve on his:

“When I got out of the car, the air seemed aggressively arid, as if it was trying to raid the moisture from my body and win the war against plants at the same time.”

  • Arizona Sake is in Holbrook Arizona, which bills itself as a "gateway" to the Painted Desert
  • Arizona Sake's building is a boxy, near-windowless room on Route 66
  • Arizona Sake is near the Painted Desert
  • Arizona Sake is world-class, but in a desolate spot

Northeast Arizona is so little like traditional sake country that Sakurai himself dismissed the location out of hand when he arrived in the hometown of his Navajo American wife, Heather Basinger. The couple met when she toured the sake factory where he worked. They married and had two of their three kids in Japan before, frustrated with Japanese bureaucracy thwarting Sakurai’s dream of owning his own sake house, they moved back to the US in 2014.

The family struck out for the Pacific Northwest, which at least shares an ocean with Japan and has a thriving Asian community – a far more promising customer base than Holbrook, which is beer and pickup country through and through.

“The apparent business potential here was very small,” he said with politic understatement for what has become his adopted hometown..

To set the kitschy, Route 66 scene, the Smithsonian’s photographer had lavished some attention on a T-Rex sculpture outside of the “Painted Desert Indian Center,” a broad brush sweeping up Navajo, Hopi and Apache tribal lands nearby.

Being a lazy opportunist, I went over there to see if I could draft on that idea, too. I did shoot several angles of the dino, but an eye-rolling plywood “Indian maiden” shaking a maraca grabbed my attention and would not let go.

  • Arizona Sake is in Holbrook, just down the road from the Painted Desert Indian Center.
  • Arizona Sake is near the Painted Desert Indian Center
  • Arizona Sake is near the Painted Desert Indian Center

Inside, I was immediately appraised for my likelihood of departing with some of the silver and turquoise jewelry arrayed on a black velvet tray under glass. Not being that kind of woman, and not wanting to lead anyone on, I aggressively averted my gaze from two saleswomen. Maybe they thought I was a lookie-loo, a candidate to buy one of their sad stone busts, or a safe bet to at least go home with some incense.

The most compelling thing about the museum was a high shelf containing some dozen to 15 indigenous infant and toddler dolls of two emotional modes: near-psychotic levels of glee and children who had been eavesdropping on their elders telling concerning stories around the campfire.

  • Arizona Sake is near the Painted Desert Indian Center
  • Arizona Sake is near the Painted Desert Indian Center
  • Arizona Sake is near the Painted Desert Indian Center

During my interview with Atsuo, I got the distinct impression that my visit had shifted in his mind from an endurable waste of time to something more like quicksand, were it to provoke other media to seek him out.

“I don’t make sake for awards, ” Sakurai tells me at one point, after I ask about his. At another juncture, he says “I don’t want to be famous,” as if my lightly read blog would have some bearing on this outcome.

Atsuo’s interviewer has learned just enough about sake to be dangerous. She knows that sake is not actually a very descriptive term for what he is making; that, in fact, sake is a word that describes all alcoholic beverages in Japan and “nihonshu” is a more precise word.

She knows that there are gradations of sake largely based on how much of a grain of rice is polished away before it’s mixed with mold, fermented and distilled.

Not just brown rice’s thiamine-rich bran, whose polishing-off doomed thousands of white-rice loving civilians and sailors to a death by beriberi in late 19th century Japan. But much of the outer white part, too, because it contains fats and proteins that might show up as off flavors in the finished drink.

Half the rice or more is polished away to make the highest grade, Dai Ginjo, rice with 60 percent or less remaining is used to make Ginjo, and 70 percent or less makes Junmai.

Arizona Sake in production.
Arizona sake in production: polished Calrose rise is steamed, 20 percent is infected with a special mold, called Koji that Atsuo imports from Japan. That’s added to the other rice, and the mixture is fermented and distilled.

This is more than the average person knows about sake, so when I ask him about his rice-polishing ratio, I can see, not a grudging respect forming in his eyes; that would be going too far, but more like relief that we will have something serious to talk about.

When I see how enthusiastically he’s joining in my sake tasting, I take it as a hint and keep my questions brief, less than 20 minutes. But before I leave him to his work, he opens up about a couple of things.

One is how he sees the future of sake in the U.S., and not in Japan, where “the national drink is regulated by the establishment,” his voice hard-edged in a way that crops up again whenever I ask about Japan. “It’s not open to regular Japanese people,” he said, from experience. “It’s not a smart idea to hold that culture (back).”

A shadow of its former self as a cultural touchstone, sake’s demand has plummeted for decades in Japan, losing out to beer, wine and whiskey.

Delicious at any temperature, sake is undeniably hot in world market terms, a $7.35 B industry projected to grow to $10.47 B by 2026, nearly 5 percent per year, according to Fortune Business Insights.

Much of that growth is forecast in U.S. and Chinese markets.

“I don’t know that in the future if the sake in Japan is going to be deep into their life,” he said. “I doubt it.”

  • Arizona Sake founder Atsuo Sakurai in his Holbrook, Arizona office and sake house
  • Arizona Sake's Atsuo Sakurai

Meanwhile, in the U.S., there are now at least 20 sake brewers, up from 5 a decade ago, according to Thrillist. Young new producers are coming into their own and appreciating what it takes to make great sake, in Brooklyn, in Portland, in Maine and LA.

“I am happy about that,” Sakurai said.

He also waxes poetic about his desire to have his own sake reflect place. He has added desert-foraged flavorings to some of his bottles like prickly pear juice, just a pale pink touch, and earthy Navajo tea, a nod to his wife’s culture.

“These days we are leaning into technology and consuming natural resources,” he said. “I want to, and we need to appreciate our wild nature.”

Holbrook will continue to be home base as Sakarai buys new equipment and increases capacity. He has not asked for any financial support from the state, but he appreciates how easy it was to get licenses and permits in Arizona. (The Pacific Northwest was not nearly so welcoming. ) After he started winning awards, Atsuo got a commendation from Arizona Gov. Brian Ducey.

“Only encouraging me is good enough for me,” he said. “I appreciate the support.”

In the end, his company’s enviable reputation had very little to do with location, resting instead on a foundation of quality, tasted blind.

“This is a little town, in the middle of desert, in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “In Arizona, sake still is not very popular…It didn’t matter. I realized that, finally.”

**All lighthearted derision aside, don’t miss Mesa Italiana Restaurant, right on the main drag at 2318 Navajo Blvd, for chef’s kiss meatballs and eggplant parm, should you find yourself sleeping overnight in Holbrook, AZ.  For breakfast, Tom and Suzie’s Diner, just down the road at 2001 Navajo Blvd. will serve you a delicious breakfast burrito that will hold you till dinner. Mesa is unquestionably the best restaurant for dinner in town, with both a sports-bar-TV and a white tablecloth side, each serving the same authentic Italian menu to diners with different atmosphere priorities. Tom and Suzie’s has all the best of small-town diner qualities: it’s open early, serves huge breakfasts with interesting options, and stocks a pie case that will make you question whether dessert of breakfast ought to be a thing.

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