Matt Jaffe

Welcome to Holbrook, the sake capital of America! Sort of.

Although this Historic Route 66 and railroad town has never been known as the Hokkaido of the high desert, master brewer Atsuo Sakurai’s Arizona Sake has put Holbrook on the international sake map. In 2018, his junmai ginjo won a gold medal as the best sake produced outside of Japan at Tokyo’s Sake Competition, considered the most prestigious event of its kind.

All of which raises a basic question: What is a world-class sake brewer doing in Holbrook, a town far better known for petrified wood than for fermented rice?

To find the answer, fix your GPS to Odate, Japan, 6,000 miles west of Holbrook. Sakurai (pictured), a Yokohama native, was working at a sake brewery in Odate when he met his future wife, Heather. Of Navajo descent, Heather grew up in Holbrook and was teaching English in Japan when, one day, she decided to tour the sake facility. And, in a meet-cute that crossed cultures and continents, Sakurai turned out to be her guide.

By the time Heather met Sakurai, he was already a sake industry veteran, with 10 years in the business. Back in college, where he studied agriculture, he became intrigued with the sake brewing process as he and his friends sat around the dorm, sipping this rice-based beverage and talking politics. After working his way up from an assistant position, he earned the coveted designation of first-grade master sake brewer and eventually decided to start his own brewery. “I wanted to work and be more relaxed and free,” he says. “It’s very boring being in someone else’s business, and I wanted to do what I wanted to do, not what someone in the company told me to do. Sometimes your boss is very crazy, right?”

No argument there. 

But sake brewing licenses, Sakurai says, are hard to come by in Japan, so the couple moved to the United States, where Sakurai hoped to set up shop in Seattle or Portland. But they’re expensive cities, and with no family ties in the Pacific Northwest, the couple settled in Holbrook in 2014. Sakurai worried the Arizona climate might be too hot and arid for brewing sake, but he discovered Holbrook actually offered a couple of big advantages. The city draws from the Coconino Aquifer, which is known for its pure, high-quality water — an essential ingredient in premium sake. And the dry desert air greatly reduces the chance of mold forming during fermentation.

So, Holbrook it would be. “This little town, it’s super Southwest but finally needs sake,” Sakurai says.

If your vision of a sake brewery consists of shoji screens, soft lighting and handcrafted cypress and pine woods, think again. After initially brewing in his garage, Sakurai now operates out of a spartan structure on a dusty lot along Navajo Boulevard. The building could charitably be described as minimalist — to call it Zen would be a stretch. But with a Super 8 motel as its closest neighbor and Dollar General, Carl’s Jr. and McDonald’s just to the south, Arizona Sake stands as an outpost of the independent entrepreneurial spirit along a strip of chains and franchises. “Yes, those are all very big businesses,” Sakurai says with a measure of solemnity.

I stop by Arizona Sake on a breezy December day. Run Rudolph Run and an assortment of other holiday tunes play on the radio as the fermenting rice fills the space with a fruity aroma that Sakurai likens to a mix of apple, pear and blueberry. Sakurai has gone local, to the extent that a sake brewer in Holbrook can, and wears a baseball cap emblazoned with a Route 66
marker. And Heather’s grandparents recently moved onto tribal land, giving Sakurai a chance to experience the more traditional Navajo way of life during visits.

A bit of Navajo culture has even found its way into his sake. One day, Sakurai’s father-in-law suggested creating a sake with Navajo tea, which is brewed from greenthread, a member of the aster family that’s common in Arizona and blooms in summer. Clearly not a man averse to a bit of disruption, Sakurai says, “I thought, That’s a very interesting idea. OK, I’ll try it.” He put stems in the sake, then heated and brewed it to better integrate the tea’s flavor. The sprigs remain in the bottle, adding undertones of grassiness to the sake. And in the process, Sakurai managed a feat even more unlikely than his straight-outta-Holbrook sake: He has brewed a sake with Navajo terroir.

“Navajo tea is the people’s tea,” he says. “That plant really represents Arizona, because it grows in the Arizona soil with Arizona sunshine and Arizona rain. So, the sake has an Arizona flavor, I think. Very earthy. It brings about Arizona memories.”

Arizona Sake is located at 1639 Navajo Boulevard, Holbrook. 928-241-8594,