Japan Today
Sakeice is in the Yanmar Tokyo Building, next to Tokyo station.
Sakeice is in the Yanmar Tokyo Building, next to Tokyo station. Image: Hiroyuki Narita/Sakeice

Sake ice cream’s soft power: Luxurious treat promotes Japan’s traditional drink

By Audrey Foo

Japan’s nihonshu (Japanese rice wine, or sake) consumption has continually declined since its peak in the 1970s. Tokyo-based business Sakeice is spreading sake awareness locally and abroad with its own innovative method: ice cream.

Unlike a typical ice cream shop displaying flavors in a riot of lurid colors, the Sakeice store, next to Tokyo station in Yaesu, sells a range of mostly plain, white ice cream. Sakeice, however, is far from vanilla — it makes Japan’s (and most likely the world’s) first and only high-alcohol, adults-only ice cream using real sake.

Other sake-flavored ice creams are made with sake lees (sake production leftover solids) or trace amounts of sake with about 1% alcohol. A 100-milliliter cup of Sakeice ice cream contains around 25 milliliters of sake (about 4% alcohol). Its customers must be at least 20 years old and it’s not recommended for people who are pregnant or planning on driving.

Distinct flavors from different sake

Don’t be fooled by the mostly white ice creams. These treats can make some people tipsy Image: Hiroyuki Narita/Sakeice

The best selling flavor features Niigata’s popular Hakkaisan sake — its delicate, refreshing taste and aroma is renowned for pairing well with food. The Hokkaido Otokoyama sake flavor is sharper and deeper. In 2020, it won the Superior Taste Award in the International Taste Institute’s global competition.

New varieties showcasing different sakes from across Japan are introduced every month. Other flavors include sake with chocolate, matcha (powdered green tea) or yuzu (a type of Japanese citrus) and rotating non-alcoholic options such as pink rice or riz au lait (rice milk porridge). The products are also sold online and at various outlets around Japan.

Launching a one-of-a-kind dessert

Edamame Co., Ltd. CEO Hiroyuki Narita and sake ice cream at the Sakeice official shop in Yaesu, Tokyo. Image: Japan Today/Audrey Foo/Hiroyuki Narita

Sakeice is created by Edamame Co., Ltd., a frozen food technology business and marketing consultancy helping organizations develop and spread Japanese food around the world.

Osaka-born representative director and CEO, Hiroyuki Narita, graduated from Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University School of Commerce, then worked on marketing projects and startups before starting Edamame in 2015.

Narita wanted a core product for Edamame. One day, inspired by a trending tweet, he visited a convenience store, bought an Ozeki One Cup sake and poured it over a cup of Meiji vanilla ice cream. The delicious combination spurred his imagination. Could kneading sake into ice cream create an even tastier dessert?

Developing the first recipe took Edamame about a year and a half and more than 100 prototypes.

“The alcohol makes the ice cream less likely to freeze and more likely to melt. We overcame these challenges by devising materials and manufacturing methods,” Narita said.

About six months of negotiations with the Japanese government’s National Tax Agency achieved a first: Sakeice ice cream could be made and sold with an ice cream license (with certain conditions). Ice cream with more than 1% alcohol would normally require a liquor license. Sakeice ice cream debuted in their (now closed) Asakusa shop in 2020.

Next step: international expansion

Sake and yuzu ice cream. Sake-and-fruit flavor combinations are popular in overseas markets. Image: Hiroyuki Narita/Sakeice

Narita said about the current shop: “20 to 30% of our customers are foreign nationals. The largest number of customers are Chinese speakers (Taiwanese and Chinese). The next largest number of customers speak English. We are now looking to expand our overseas customers. That is why we chose the location in front of Tokyo station.”

Within the next two to three years, Sakeice’s overseas sales are forecast to outgrow domestic sales.

“Test exports to several countries are underway. We have exported to Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.”

Narita explained they are particularly focused on Taiwan, where Sakeice is very popular, and plans for a joint venture to switch to local manufacturing there are progressing.

“In Japan, flavors such as Hakkaisan and Otokoyama are popular for enjoying the taste of sake itself. In Taiwan, on the other hand, fruit flavors such as lychee and plum wine are popular.

“Japanese people tend to enjoy subtle differences in sake, such as junmai-shu [made without the addition of neutral spirits], junmai-daiginjo [junmai-style plus rice polished to 50% or less, and low-temperature fermentation] and nigori-shu [cloudy and roughly filtered], within the same sake category. Those from overseas tend to prefer coffee-flavored doburoku [unpressed, similar to nigori], apple sake or plum sake, which are easy to imagine the taste of… or junmai-daiginjo if they are familiar with Japanese sake.”

Narita said exporting to the U.S. and EU is challenging because these regions require licenses for two categories: milk and alcohol. So is China, because of 2011’s Fukushima nuclear accident. However, he believes Sakeice can capitalize on expanding Japanese and overseas ice cream markets.

Working together with sake breweries

The Sakeice shop also sells sake from many small breweries. Image: Hiroyuki Narita/Sakeice

As a sake fan himself, Narita wants to promote the industry, too. Responding to customer requests, his shop also sells sake used in the ice creams. Other sake, especially jizake (artisanal, small-batch brews) and paid sake tastings are also offered. Sake represents about 20% of shop sales.

“Most of the people who buy sake at Sakeice are people who do not drink sake very regularly. The demographics of sake buyers in Sakeice are overwhelmingly female, which is very different from the average demographic of sake buyers (older males).”

“In addition, since starting Sakeice, I have become acquainted with many sake breweries and have expanded my opportunities to enjoy various types of sake.”

Narita travels once or twice a month to sake breweries around Japan. Brewers have also approached the shop. As of May 2024, Sakeice has collaborated with over 60 sake breweries and are planning to work with nearly 10 more.

Their first red wine ice cream will be released this September or October. Narita’s team also experimented with other alcohols and ice cream.

“With shochu (distilled Japanese spirit made from potato, rice or wheat), it was hard to create different flavors,” Narita shared. “Whisky ice cream was delicious!” he said emphatically, looking wistful. Then, he laughed. “Beer ice cream was not delicious!”

Welcoming newcomers to sake

Hiroyuki Narita with shop staff Sakura Uda, creating a friendly place for all to learn about sake. Image: Audrey Foo

Along with Japanese “soft power” cultural exports like anime, manga, games and fashion, Japanese cuisine is popular in many countries. Sake exports are increasing, but it’s still widely considered a niche product.

Edamame uses little traditional advertising for Sakeice, relying instead on publicity, social media and word of mouth.

This bootstrapped, forward-looking company is connecting young consumers to Japan’s ancient beverage — powered by the seductive allure and universal appeal of ice cream.

Store locations

Audrey Foo writes about culture from the everyday to luxury — especially Japanese food, drink, travel and the arts. www.bitesofoishii.com.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment


Can't find the shop address. Only mail order?

Looks like I will pour my own sake over vanilla ice cream at home.

Nice article, but no way to actually try the Sakeice.

..."next to Tokyo station in Yaesu" covers a LOT of ground. Please update this article with actual location of Sakeice.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Please click on the store location link at the end of the story.

Sake is not a science project, but if this one is, I'm in. Sake and ice cream seems to me to be a good match. With summer already early, I could see myself cooling off with one of these. Or two. Or four.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Looking forward to the 9% strong lineup ;)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites