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Jillian Watanabe wants to set the record straight about sake — Japan’s most well-known alcoholic beverage.
“It is brewed like beer, sipped like wine and versatile enough to use in a cocktail,” said the head brewer of Tsuki Sake — Utah’s first modern-day producer of the fermented beverage.
Made with polished rice, sake is gluten-free, sulfite-free and vegan, she said. And, if you’ve only consumed it warm — and especially if you were unimpressed — try it cold.
“It’s just such a cool, unique beverage,” said Watanabe, who co-owns the sake business with partners Ty Eldridge, a business operation manager who previously worked for Epic Brewing; and Kirk Terashima, the executive chef at Park City’s Yuki Yama Sushi.
This culinary trio launched the company during the pandemic, when restaurants were limiting capacity to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Watanabe said. “We were trying to make lemonade out of lemons — utilizing that time to really see where we could go with it.”
Watanabe was drawn to the sake — a sometimes mysterious beverage for American consumers — after spending more than a decade working in casual and fine-dining Japanese restaurants. “It just kind of hooked me,” she said. “I just found myself getting really excited, talking about it with guests.”
She also took classes to learn more about how it’s brewed.
During one of those courses, she toured the Colorado Sake Company — one of about 20 small, craft sake breweries in America. Afterward, was compelled to reach out to founder William Stewart and his staff.
“They were just awesome,” she said. “They said ‘Come brew with us and learn. We want to help you start your company.”
She spent several weeks at the Denver-based company learning the process and getting hands-on brewing experience. Tsuki Sake launched in July of 2021 with two different products that were produced during Watanabe’s Colorado sojourn.
The premium sake, called Junmai Daiginjo, is $29.99 and it is made with Yamadanishiki rice grown in California. The unfiltered sake — or nigori — is $23.99 and infused with white peach flavors. Consumers can purchase the products in select state-run liquor stores, as well as a growing number of Utah restaurants.
The history of sake is part of the allure for Watanabe, who said her brewing inspiration is Miho Imada — a well-known female sake brewer in Japan. The Imada Brewery is located in Hiroshima, where Watanabe’s great, great grandparents lived before immigrating to Hawaii. They later move to California and then Idaho, which helped them avoid the internment camps during World War II.
Tsuki Sake will continue to brew in Colorado for the foreseeable future — until the trio tests the market and saves enough money to lease a permanent location in the state, said Watanabe, adding that the partners are building the craft business on their own dime — without the help of investors.
Their timing should help them, as interest in Japanese sake has been growing in the U.S. for several years and the number of small, craft brewers has been on the rise, according to the Sake Brewers Association of North America.
Headquartered in Washington D. C., it is the first sake trade association outside of Japan and includes brewers distributors, rice farmers and others from across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Ironically, said Watanabe, as American consumers become more interested in sake, demand for the alcoholic beverage has slumped in Japan: residents there have turned their attention to beer and whiskey.
The Tsuki Sake owners hope by having a presence in Utah, they can get more consumers in the state to appreciate the beverage, said Watanabe, who added these additional attributes to her “must know” list.
“It’s not heavy. You can enjoy it on its own or with a meal and It doesn’t fight with the flavors of food,” she said. “It’s just so versatile — that’s what I really love about it.”