How Domaine Senkin’s sake went from awful to awesome under Kazuki Usui

Growing up, were you expected to carry on the family business? “My parents believed my brother and I would take over the business, which has been going for 200 years. But they never said we must do it. When I was young I thought sake was old-fashioned and wanted to go into the wine world instead.

In 1995, a man called Tasaki Shinya became the first Japanese sommelier to win the International Sommelier Association’s world’s best sommelier competition. That’s why I thought wine was cool. At the age of 20, I quit university, where I was studying commerce, to go to wine school.”

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What did your parents think of you studying wine? “They didn’t object. They thought that since wine and sake had alcohol in common, I would learn to make alcoholic beverages and come back to the family firm eventually. I studied wine at a sommelier school in Tokyo, graduated and worked there for four years before returning to my family’s company in 2004.

With wine, you can taste the terroir of a place. Sake is different because we don’t have the concept of terroir. Up until that point, the only sake I knew was that made by my family. After I started studying wine, I began tasting different sakes and I realised that the sake from our family was awful. That’s when I went back home.”

How did you shake things up at the brewery? “At the time, our com­pany policy was to mass produce cheap sake. To make better-quality sake, we changed the production method from machine to hand, which greatly reduced the amount of sake produced.

I also wanted to make sake with higher acidity and sweet­ness, much like German-style gewurztra­miner and riesling. Sake with higher acidity and sweetness was not accepted at the time – it was a new idea. Everyone in the market wondered what we were doing but, because of the new taste, we attracted people who didn’t usually drink sake, like young people and women.”

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How did people react to the changes? “In 2007, our company was about to go bankrupt because we had been making cheaper and cheaper sake. We had to beg people to buy our sake. When I decided to change things, no one protested. The situation is different now. My parents think we are doing well.

I felt we should follow the domaine concept [where an estate bottles the grapes grown on the property], so we increased the number of rice fields we have near our brewery. We have gone even more traditional in how we make sake. We make it with yeast that is naturally in the air.”

What’s it like working with your brother? “My younger brother is in charge of production and I look after product development. It’s hard to run a business with siblings because you can’t 100 per cent separate your responsibilities and work. As brothers there are times when we argue.”

Do you want your three-year-old daughter to join the family business eventually? “I don’t think [working in the family business is] necessarily a good thing. Actually, I don’t treat it as a family business, and I don’t think only family members should take over the business. As long as the person is qualified and they like our product, and they are a good person, then he or she can run it. The most important thing is to continue the name of the brand.”

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