Photographs by Pete McBride
The ancient Japanese art of brewing a fragrant alcoholic drink from rice is being reinterpreted by Atsuo Sakurai in an unlikely setting
In the old Route 66 town of Holbrook, Arizona, close to the Navajo reservation and far from anywhere else, a 41-year-old man named Atsuo Sakurai is making the best sake produced outside Japan. When, by happenstance, I heard about this extraordinary achievement some months ago from a bartender in Los Angeles, I felt compelled to find out how it happened.
The road to Holbrook, population 5,000, is long and empty, and passed through stark red desert. The sky was enormous, the horizons flung out, and the light exuded a polished gleaming quality. Wind had carved rocks into hoodoos and goblins. When I got out of the car, the air seemed aggressively arid, as if it was trying to raid the moisture from my body and win the war against plants at the same time. It’s hard to imagine an environment more different from the wet, green Japanese islands where the art of fermenting rice into sake has been perfected over 2,400 years.
Did Sakurai choose Holbrook, I wondered, or wash up there on the tides of fate? Is he viewed as an eccentric? What do the locals make of him, and vice versa? Where does he source his rice? How far does his finished product have to travel before it reaches the nearest sake connoisseur? How does the desert climate affect the making and flavor of the sake? I had never tasted expensive high-grade sake before, which prompted another question. How delicious can a drink made from fermented rice and rice mold really be?