Made in Arizona: Best international sake made outside of Japan is in Holbrook

HOLBROOK, Ariz. (KSAZ) -- Sake is considered the national drink of Japan. It pairs nicely with sushi, and some call it rice wine.

But did you know the best international sake made outside of Japan is made in Holbrook, Arizona? That's according to Tokyo's 2018 sake competition.

His name is Atsuo Sakurai. He hails from Yokohama, Japan and loved drinking sake with his buddies in college.

"I want to make sake by myself. I tried in my dorm. But this is illegal in Japan though. But I tried," Sakurai said.

Sakurai says he had so much fun, he got a job at a sake brewery after college. And fast forward ten years later...

"I got married to my wife. She's American, so ok, let's go to the states," Sakurai said.

In January 2017, Sakurai got his Arizona state license to make Junmai Ginjo. It's a simple sake that only uses rice, water, yeast and koji, a fungus used in sake.

Sakurai showed FOX 10's Jennifer Auh how you actually make sake.

"This white stuff that's bubbling, is that rice?"

"Yeah, you're going to mix it. This is a mixing rod," Sakurai said. "Slowly pull it up, like this."

The scent of sake getting stronger as Jennifer mixed it.

After the mixture ferments for about two months, Sakurai presses it through a machine.

"Two jacks here and then press down gradually," Sakurai said.

He then tests it to make sure the alcohol content is 15 to 17 percent.

"You want it really fruity in flavor, and fresh," Sakurai said.

This is all made in his wife's hometown of Holbrook.

"You start seeing the passion in which he has," said Bobby Tyler.

The mayor of Holbrook, Bobby Tyler, says he's compared Sakurai's sake to others.

"I went and bought some from the stores down there and his is a lot better," Tyler said.

With a population of about 5,000, Sakurai and his wife live in this dusty, Route 66, frontier town. It's mostly known for it's large Native American population and the Petrified Forest.

"We couldn't be more proud. We call him our ambassador. In fact, he was nominated as the business of the year," said Cindy Tafoye, the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce Director.

And just one and a half years after getting his license, Sakurai's sake has been featured in numerous high-end restaurants in Arizona.

His Arizona sake was also awarded as the World's Best International Sake made outside of Japan.

"Now there aren't any sushi restaurants in Holbrook."

However, here in the valley, there are a number of Japanese restaurants that carry Sakurai's sake, including Nobuo at Teeter House.

Chef Nobuo Fukuda knows a thing or two about sake.

"Usually sake in Japan is heated twice. And some of them heated once," Fukuda said.

Chef Fukuda says Arizona sake is very unique in that it's not pasteurized at all.

With its signature golden hue, Arizona sake tasted more like white wine than traditional sake.

Chef Fukuda agreed, serving it in a wine glass.

"Sake is not supposed to have too much high acid," Fukuda said.

But Sakurai doesn't play by the rules.

"Like white wine, it's beautiful. Has a lot of acidity to it," Fukuda said. "Melon fruit coming in the front, and then pops up, then slowly go quiet, quiet and then gone."

Fukuda said he's tried similar sake in Japan, brewed with higher acidity, but they didn't matchup to Arizona sake.

"I don't know what's his secret," Fukuda said.

On top of not being pasteurized, Sakurai uses a strain of California rice instead of the usual sake rice. He also uses local Arizona water and credits the dry Arizona air for creating the crisp, clean flavor of his sake.

As for what pairs nicely with it, Chef Fukuda recommends anything that would pair nicely with white wine.

And with recognition for Arizona sake growing, Sakurai says he is simply grateful.

"Thank you America, and thank you Arizona," Sakurai said.

Because Arizona sake is not pasteurized, it has to be refrigerated and only lasts about two months in the bottle.

Some other restaurants in the valley that serve this sake include Glai Baan, Binkley's and Bul Thaup.

You can also find it at local liquor stores and markets like Fujiya, New Tokyo and Arcadia Premium.