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Foundation of the Saito Sake Brewery

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Saito Sake Brewery was established in Fushimi, Kyoto, in 1895 and the current chairman, Toru Saito, is the 4th generation of owners. The company originally started as fabric merchants of the Izutsuya shop in the 17th century, so he is a 12th generation member of the Saito business family. Until and including the 8th generation, every chairman of the company has inherited the first name “Ihei”.

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At the end of the Edo era, government was transferred from the shogunate to the Emperor for the first time in approximately 300 years. Japan repealed its isolationist policy and commenced trading with the west. In 1878 railway was established between Kyoto and Kobe which drastically decreased the foot traffic passing Izutsuya. Saito family oral history tells of that time, when young 9th generation Sotarou Saito had just inherited the business and was considering changing the direction of the company from silk to sake. He went to a crops and agriculture shrine in Osaka to have his fortune told about his decision. The priest told him to wait beside the river next to the shrine and report back the first type of person he encountered in the morning. The person Sotarou encountered looked like a master carpenter. He was carrying a container of sake and singing a song. The priest interpreted this as a good sign, and Sotarou was told to start sake production.

Recently a son of the current priest of that shrine visited Saito sake brewery. He revealed that the shrine fortune telling philosophy focusses on items beside a person. The fiction-like founding story of the Saito brewery may well be true.

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The name of Saito’s flagship brand dates to the founder. When the Meiji emperor passed away, Japan was in mourning for 3 years. At the end of the mourning period, Saito Sake Brewery decided to launch a new item to commemorate the new Emperor’s era. “Ei (superior) kun (achievement) is reflected in the kanji “kun” of Sotarou’s a posthumous Buddhist name.The philosophy for sake making inherited in Saito Sake Brewery, “sake should be delicious as a drink”, may sound simple, but it demonstrates a much deeper thought process: the producer’s definition of “delicious” decides the direction of the taste. That is why the current chairman told Sake Experience Japan that “what type of delicious they are seeking is extremely important”. He gave the analogy “I can draw a picture with either a thick or thin brush, but the important thing is what I draw”.

Saito’s sake has a good structure with a meticulous, gentle, velvety texture. It expresses well-balanced purity, gentle acidity and sweetness. This is why the brewery has won the gold medal at the National New Sake Competition 14 years in a row. This big success has never been achieved by any other breweries.

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Despite its current successes, Saito Sake Brewery has had its challenges. When sweet sake was in fashion, they did follow the trend and produced that type of sake. However in response to customer feedback, they decided to focus on sake which represents “Kyoto” and “Fushimi”, taking advantage of the excellent quality of Fushimi water. The sake representing “Fushimi” has a pleasant aftertaste with roundness and gentleness, as though the sake is not drunk, but absorbed naturally.

To be continued to the next interview.

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