The Namazake Paul Advent Calendar, stuffed with 23 one-cup sakes and one big Christmas Eve surprise. Photo courtesy of Namazake Paul.

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Over a year ago, Paul Willenberg, better known to the sake community as “Namazake Paul,” noticed a glut of advent calendars on the market. Typically fashioned as an interactive calendar with windows revealing small surprise gifts within to mark each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas, it’s a tradition that began in late 19th century Germany.

 It’s also a popular way to appeal to fans of comestibles ranging from tea to Danish wine gums. When he spotted a poor-quality canned wine advent calendar, Paul began fantasizing about a sake advent calendar, but with quality one-cup sake behind each window of the calendar.

So for what he now considers his 2021 beta version of the calendar, he cobbled one together  by emptying out one-cup shipping boxes, filling them with hand-picked one-cup sakes, then pasting on an illustrated cover. The only problem: he discovered that there is not a lot of quality one-cup sake available in the U.S.

You’ll be happy to see this shipping box arrive on your doorstep.

 This year, beginning eight months before Christmas, Paul began sourcing the best one-cup sakes available in Japan, working with New York-based importer Japan Prestige Sake International to supplement what was already available in the U.S. The result is 500 boxes of his 2022 Sake Advent Calendar ($300) stuffed with little gems like Akita Prefecture’s Hiraizumi Honpo yamahai tokubetsu honjozo and Kariho ginjo from Akita Seishu, or the Tochigi Prefecture Kaika junmai ginjo from Daiichi brewery. To break out on Christmas eve, is one surprise 720ml bottle from Nara Prefecture. Users can share their reactions on a dedicated advent calendar Facebook Page.

 The Kaika is called the “Sake meets Ramen” junmai ginjo, a collaboration with a well known Tochigi ramen blogger, Satoko Morimoto (who claims to eat 600 bowls of ramen a year!) and is carried in a number of her favorite ramen shots. “It’s a very classic Tochigi sake, with a daiginjo elegance in their junmais,” says Paul. On the party end of the spectrum, look for Ikezo yuzu sparkling jelly shot one-cup from Ozeki Brewery, which you have to shake to loosen up the konbu-thickened jellies.

 This year Paul also worked with a local cardboard manufacturer to create a box with 23 custom-cut small windows for the one-cup sakes, and a large 24th window that reveals the grand finale. The process also involved a custom die-cut foam insert to hold each bottle, which he can use for future versions of the sake advent calendar.

 An important part of the package was finding an artist to illustrate the calendar. For that he did not have to look further than his day job, which is working as a financial services company doing qualitative research, including organizing focus groups and surveys. (These skills came in handy last year, when he closely surveyed each of his 60 advent calendar buyers to find out what worked and what didn’t.) He knew his co-worker, graphic designer Kayla Swanson, was up to the challenge. They came up with a kawaii cast of characters ranging from the curious and mischievous Shiro Kuma (white bear) to sake imbibing reindeer, penguins, seals and ice skating baby bears. Shiro Kuma’s antics include getting his head stuck in a sake barrel and overindulging in sake and passing out on the snow, good trouble we might aspire to, whether as carefree anime characters or our actual selves.

The handy tasting book. (Maneki neko not included.)

 To accompany this 23” x 19” x 5”, 23-pound box of sake fun is a tasting booklet with two pages devoted to each sake, including a map of Japan showing its place of origin, basic stats on the sake, the brewery and its classification, as well as a place to record your own tasting notes. Each listing also includes a clever circular tasting wheel done in collaboration with the Portland company 33 Books Co., which specializes in “tasting journals” for every food and beverage imaginable from Japanese whiskey to donuts, burgers, and pizza.

 Namazake Paul advises users not to skip ahead in the booklet, but to be surprised each day with what’s ahead (sorry, I already blew that for you!). Instead of ordering them from lightest to heaviest, or by classification, he opted to mix them up so that users don’t get bored with too many similar styles in a row. He did try to put lighter, easier drinking sakes at the beginning of the week, and richer varieties toward the weekend, and envisions users pulling out a cup sake each night, or conducting tastings of four or five on the weekend with friends.

 Despite his moniker, Namazake Paul does not trade only in nama, or unpasteurized sakes, but prefers to think of himself as a seasonal sake specialist. “I really enjoy the seasonality and changes in sake,” over the older “the Chivas Regal,” approach of one consistent flavor profile, he explains.  His current stock includes a dozen hiyaoroshi sakes with more due in next week. He’ll bring in nama sakes in the early spring, and then special summer sake releases.

 His dream is to eventually make sake his full-time job, not just because he’s passionate about sake, but because, he says, “I love being around sake people. Wine people always want to show off, and they have such strong opinions. I love the supportive nature of the sake community. Even on the snarkier platforms, like Reddit, people just want to help each other.”

 Another winning aspect of the sake community is its endless creativity in coming up with new ways of celebrating and promoting sake. Namazake Paul’s 2022 Sake Advent Calendar is the latest in these fun innovations, and it won’t be the last.


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** The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Sake Brewers Association of North America or its members. Images courtesy of the author**