Yuki Imanishi and Kyoko Nagano are the founders of Sake Lovers Inc and their mission is to spread their love of sake with the world and support small craft breweries in Japan.
We had the pleasure to talk to them to learn more about their mission, love of sake and their personal connection with the drink of the gods.
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Tell us a little more about yourself?
Yuki Imanishi: My name is Yuki Imanishi; please call me Yuki-chan! I am from Yokohama city in Kanagawa prefecture. It has been the 6th year since I started to work for the sake industry, and before that, I was working at a major electricity company.
Kyoko Nagano: Hi, my name is Kyoko Nagano, you can call me Kyoko. I am from Tokyo. I used to work at a trading company, foreign financial institutions, and now I work together with Yuki; I am in the sake industry for 3 years now. I run 3 companies centred around Japanese culture, including Sake Lovers Inc.
When and where was the first time you had sake?
Yuki Imanishi: It was truly a love at first sight experience. The first sip of Nihonshu, the Japanese sake was when I was little on New Years called Otoso. I thought it was sweet and delicious. It was just a tiny sip, but I felt that Nihonshu is delicious.
Kyoko Nagano: The first time I had sake was at the age of 20. It wasn't a pleasant encounter, actually. It was at University's nomikai (drinking party). I guess during university years, we all do silly things, and you don't know your alcohol intake limit, so after drinking cheap sake and sake bombs, I felt sick, vomited, and I thought I didn't like it. But over the years, just like your taste buds develop, my husband was drinking premium sake at a Japanese restaurant in Thailand, and he told me that this sake is delicious that I should try, so I tried the premium sake he was drinking. Obviously, I thought that the quality of sake has changed in 20 years. Ever since, I started to try different kinds of sake and became a sake lover. So I would say I was a late starter.
What led you to make sake your full-time project and create Sake Lovers Inc?
Yuki Imanishi: I've always loved sake so much! I wanted to increase sake loving members and make it a drink we can all enjoy together, so I created Washukai, sake lovers club in 2008, and it all started from there.
Kyoko Nagano: I am not interested in making money. I am a culture advocate, and sake is Japan's national drink. The sake industry is diminishing in Japan. We used to have around 3000 sake breweries in Japan in 1975, and now we only have somewhere around 1300 breweries or less. The production has decreased to 1/3. This is a very sad fact but every year, more than 50 sake breweries go out of business. We thought we need to help the struggling small craft sake breweries as much as possible before they're gone. It is tough to make money to support the struggling industry itself, but we just couldn't ignore this situation anymore. We want to spread the love of sake and raise the exposure and create opportunities for the wonderful but not known small craft sake breweries in rural areas.
Did you have any misconceptions about sake before you fell in love with it?
Yuki Imanishi: No, I didn't. It has always been my favourite drink!! :)
Kyoko Nagano: Yes. As I said, my first encounter with sake wasn't a pleasant one. I used to think that sake made me sick and isn't the drink for me. I hope that people will give sake a second chance just like I did because I am so glad that I did. When you try different kinds of sake, there is always one sake which you might like and that will make you fall in love with the whole category!
I recommend you start with Junmai Daiginjo, perhaps. The more hardcore sake fans you became, you will start to like sake that has more umami and flavour and drier taste. If there is no sake fan, try the sparkling sake or namazake (fresh raw sake) or flavoured sake like Umeshu plum sake, yuzu sake.
What do you think is the most significant misconception people outside of Japan have about sake.
Kyoko Nagano: I was amazed to hear that many people overseas have the misconception that sake is not brewed but distilled and has a high alcohol content like vodka. Oh no! I was surprised to hear about it. Sake is the brewed alcohol, not distilled. Sometimes you see in the label 50%, but that is rice polishing ratio and not alcohol content!
Yuki Imanishi: In Japan, too, some people drank cheap sake during drinking games during university days and felt nauseous and had headaches. Because of this, some people think that sake is not a good drink bringing headache.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the sake industry right now?
Yuki Imanishi: The decrease of the consumption among Japanese people and the ageing of sake rice farmers making less sake rice, the sake priced cheaply, sake can not be mass produced and takes a lot of delicate effort to handle microbes.
Kyoko Nagano: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, unlike beer or wine which gained popularity among home drinkers, many sake breweries faced a considerable decline in sales, with izakayas and restaurants closing at 8pm, and not many people were dining out. Some breweries couldn't brew sake this year or couldn't buy sake rice, or had to cancel purchasing sake rice. It caused considerable damages to the sake rice farmers too. But even before Covid-19, the young generations are not into sake, and consumption is declining every year. The industry itself needs to change the image of sake from an old man's drink to a more fashionable image. We need young and popular influencers to change the image of sake. Now Japanese Whisky is trending worldwide, but I really hope sake will become famous one day as whiskey does. 96% of sake produced in Japan are consumed domestically, and only 4% of the domestic production is exported to overseas countries. We feel that there are more spaces for great sake from small craft sake breweries to be exported overseas.
What advice would you give to people looking to explore the world of sake?
Yuki Imanishi: I want people to enjoy sake as they do with fine wine using our five senses. Enjoy the different temperature to drink it or change the vessel to drink and enjoy the taste difference. There are many ways to enjoy sake, so I want people to know about it and try more. Not just tasting Nihonshu, if people learn more about the Japanese culture and history behind it and our abundant nature, you will love it more.
Kyoko Nagano: There are many varieties of sake out there; sparkling sake, which tastes like champagne and sake, which tastes like white wine! Also, sake really goes well with any kind of food. The compatibility is amazing. My favourite food pairing is with cheese. Try sake before you eat something and try it right after you eat something. You might find it interesting how different it tastes. Also, changing the temperature to drink sake is always fun! (You can try in 5 different temperature, but I would say 3 is good enough)
Do you have sake in your fridge as we speak? What is it?
Yuki Imanishi: I always have more than 15 sake bottles in the refrigerator to pair with food :) There are all kinds of labels including seasonal sake.
Kyoko Nagano: Yes! I recently visited Nara prefecture, so I bought some fresh sake, nigori (cloudy) sake, sparkling sake, Harushika brand by Imanishi Seibei Store. It has cute labels!
Since it's getting warm and sunny, I like to drink it chilled! I only have 7 bottles in my refrigerator now but will be serving these sake bottles to my husband's friends who are coming over to our home for a BBQ party.
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We would like to thank Yuki-san and Kyoko-san for their time and sharing the same love of nihonshu and the same passion to spread the love of sake around the world a glass at a time!
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