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Sake ice cream finds sweet spot in Asia

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HAKODATE, Hokkaido >> Ice cream made with sake kasu — the solid byproduct of sake production — is satisfying cravings among Chinese ice cream lovers.

The frozen dessert created with Dassai sake kasu was first handmade by Fujireika, a small, long- established ice cream shop in Hakodate, Hokkaido. But at the suggestion of Dassai maker Asahi Shuzo Co., the shop expanded production and with the help of the company, ventured overseas.

That expansion has been a solid success.

The Dassai brand itself is extremely popular overseas, so much so that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even chose the sake as a gift for foreign dignitaries.

Founded in 1947, Fujireika is run by Akihiro and Kuniko Nakamura. About 10 years ago, the couple purchased Dassai’s sake kasu online, and after much trial and error, came up with a recipe that highlights the unique flavor of Dassai, with a gentle aroma of sake that quickly disappears.

They sent a sample to Asahi Shuzo, which deemed it delicious and then sought to mass produce it under the Dassai logo.

Fujireika sells the ice cream at its own store and ships it to sushi restaurants in Hakodate that have incorporated it into their course menus. Asahi Shuzo sells the product at its own store in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

When tourism took a hit from the coronavirus and restaurant traffic plunged, so did sales at Fujireika, by 50%. Then in February, a manager for Asahi Shuzo’s Ginza store, who hails from China, asked the shop to increase production of the sake ice cream, convinced that the flavor would appeal to the Chinese palate. Though the Nakamuras were wary, they decided to give it a try.

In August, Fujireika outsourced production and the flavor was mass produced. In October, it hit shelves in China. At the same time, Fujireika sent 20,000 units of ice cream to fine-dining Japanese restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai. By November and December, the shop had taken orders for a total of 336,000 units. It has also received inquiries from Macau, Singapore and Vietnam.

While the Nakamuras are in a state of surprise that their ice cream — made on a whim — has been so well-received, Asahi Shuzo is considering the next move.

“While many people are unable to come to Japan due to the pandemic, the demand from overseas is increasing,” said Shohei Yamane, director of the company’s International Strategy Department. “We would like to think about further expanding our sales channels.”

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