Three Queenstowners have taken their passion for Japan’s best-known alcoholic beverage, sake, one step further than any New Zealanders before.
Along with a well-heeled Japanese partner, they’ve set up the country’s first sake brewery - and despite starting small, have lofty ambitions for their new drop.
The partners, who are brewing in premises they’ve bought in Queenstown’s Repco Boulevard, believe there’s scope to sell their product not only to locals and visitors, at the likes of restaurants and souvenir shops, but also to export it - even to Japan.
Partner Craig McLachlan says sake’s become a trendy drink in places like San Francisco, New York, London and Paris.
“There’s now breweries all over the world making sake and nobody was making it in NZ so we saw a bit of a gap in the market.”
Maybe, he surmises, that’s because rice isn’t grown in NZ - his company, NZ Sake Brewers, is importing sake rice from California.
McLachlan and his local business partners David Joll and Richard Ryall have not only spent years drinking sake - “we’ve done a lot of research”, McLachlan says – but they’ve got huge links with Japan.
All have spent years living there and they own two local companies, Tanken Tours and Wilderness Adventures, catering mainly for Japanese visitors.
McLachlan’s undertaken four major treks and climbs in Japan, one with Joll, written four books in Japanese about those experiences, and like Ryall has co-authored Lonely Planet Japan guidebooks - McLachlan and Joll also have Japanese wives.
However a key ingredient in their new business is their Christchurch and Tokyo-based partner Yoshihiro Kawamura.
Kawamura, who co-owns a sake brewery in Vancouver, Canada, runs The George hotel and Hotel Montreal in Christchurch and is an executive committee member of the Japan NZ Business Council.
The partners have cleverly labelled their product Zenkuro Sake - ‘zen’ means ‘entirely’ or ‘all’ in Japanese and ‘kuro’ means ‘black’.
“We’ve trademarked it and nobody’s objected,” McLachlan says.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to be worried.”
McLachlan says they want to capitalise on Japan hosting both the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.
“I’d like to see us in there exporting a lot of Zenkuro to Japan.”
He denies that might be like selling coals to Newcastle.
“It’s not, actually, because people are starting to get interested.
“We’ve even been invited to join the big international sake competition in Tokyo in May.”
He quips: “Maybe they want us to come along and then tell us how crappy it is.”
There shouldn’t be much chance of that - the partners are producing a premium junmai style of sake, and using pure Southern Lakes water.
“We wanted to produce a good sake, not a cheap, nasty sake,” McLachlan says.
Joll, the company’s brewer, says he’s been studying brewing for 18 months and making it for a year.
That study’s included visiting breweries in Japan and Canada. Joll thinks Queenstown’s an ideal place to brew sake in.
“You need a cool climate and you need good water - we’ve got them - and you can source rice from anywhere as it’s not a regional thing any more.”
He says he’s making a smooth and light sake that can go with any food - “it’s an alternative to a light white wine”.
Its 14 per cent alcohol volume is also similar to wine.
“We had to stay below 15 per cent as we’re classified as a fruit wine,” McLachlan says.
“Which is a bit funny - it’s a bit fruity that our sake is called a fruit wine.”