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Saké Steps Up, Branches Out: It’s New, It’s Different, It’s Catching On

Posted on  | December 5, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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From P.F. Chang’s to The French Laundry and from BevMo to specialty wine retailers, saké is establishing a place on beverage lists and retail shelves around the country. Given the beverage’s flexibility—served straight up before or with dinner or mixed into cocktails—it’s no wonder importers have seen double-digit increases in saké sales.

First, a few saké basics. A brewed alcoholic beverage made of rice, water, yeast, and a mold called Koji-Kin, saké generally has a 14.5 to 15 percent alcohol content and may or may not contain distilled alcohol, depending on the type of saké. Saké is usually packaged in glass bottles (180ml, 250ml, 300ml, 720ml, and 1.8L) with size availability dependent upon whether it’s for on- or off-premise account.

Saké finds itself in a unique position floating among the beer, wine, and spirits categories. Saké without added distilled alcohol is taxed as a wine and treated like a wine under U.S. regulatory laws, but saké with distilled alcohol is considered a spirit. Saké is classified as a beer while being made in an American brewery but turns into a wine once it leaves
the warehouse.

Despite the gray-area of its definition, sales remain strong. Currently the U.S. retail saké category is valued at about $300 million, with the premium segment (over $10 per bottle retail) representing nearly half the value. “These numbers are only fractionally off from two years ago when many categories went down quickly in sales due to the economy,” says Dewey Weddington, VP of marketing at SakéOne in Oregon. “Saké has maintained its overall sales in the U.S. with high-priced imports being the only area that seemed impacted by the economic challenges. The great news for saké in the U.S. is that despite a seemingly slow economic turnaround, the saké category is enjoying a steady increase this year with 20 percent growth year to date for the first four months of 2011.”

Ed Lehrman, president of Vine Connections in Sausalito, California, who has been importing saké since 1999 and currently imports 30 sakés from 14 brewers, has seen similar growth: “2010 was the biggest year ever for dollar value for saké coming into the U.S.,” he says. “Some of that was due to the exchange rate effect, but volumes were the second largest after 2008. It was a nice rebound after a tough 2009 in the restaurant business.” Lehrman also notes that saké sales have been increasing every year in the U.S., “with perhaps an exception around 2009 due to the economy.”

Joining The Mainstream

Part of the growth in saké may be attributed to the fact that while saké established a foothold in the U.S. through Japanese, Asian and fusion restaurants, it’s slowly moving into mainstream restaurants. Claudio LoCascio, saké brand manager for Winebow in New York, has seen a sales pattern in major cities and says his sales remain primarily on-premise. (Winebow started a saké portfolio in 2008 and imports saké from six Japanese breweries.) “First it starts in Japanese and fusion restaurants who see it as central to their identity, and there you reach a critical volume of customers who are interested in saké,” says LoCascio. “And then liquor stores increase their saké selections around that area.” LoCascio says it’s also common to see saké move to specialty seafood restaurants like oyster bars. “You don’t see steakhouses taking it on, which I see as a shame,” he says.

LoCascio also notes that success on-premise depends on whether the beverage manager considers it a wine or a spirit. “Wine is closest to saké in terms of how it’s consumed, but some people see it as more of their bar program,” says LoCascio. “They won’t have it on their wine list but it will be on the cocktail list.”

For Kurtis Wells, beverage manager at Toranoko of Los Angeles, saké sales come down to educating the customer and treating it like a wine. “My approach is to make saké simple,” says Wells. “I have it by the glass and I have customers taste through the different sakés; that helps a lot. Once people get educated about why things are pricier, and equate it to wine, people understand.” Wells also notes that the restaurant offers a half-price saké night on Mondays, “which makes it easier to sell,” he says. “Education and service, that’s what it comes down to.” Toranoko’s saké list ranges from a $10 180ml up to a $300 bottle; there are four by the glass and two saké cocktails.

For restaurants considering adding saké to their beverage list, Wells suggests they start by pairing one dish with one sake: “If they have a dish that has an Asian influence and pair it with one glass of saké, that is a huge step in the right direction. Even Italian places can offer saké to pair with a dish like crudo.”

Adding saké is an excellent opportunity for beer and wine-only licensees who want to offer another alcoholic option. The other advantage to adding saké to a beverage list is its shelf life. Saké can be kept at room temperature for one to two years from the shipping date (which is printed on the label), according to John Gauntner, an acclaimed saké expert. And once it’s opened, it doesn’t spoil as quickly as wine. “If you open a bottle of saké you can keep it in the refrigerator for three to four weeks,” says Weddington. Offering sake in a variety of ways—by the glass, by the bottle, in a flight, and in cocktails—allows on-premise accounts to expose their customers to a wider range of saké.

Mixing It Up

Creating saké-based cocktails has been an important way for on-premise accounts to promote saké to their customers. While in Japan saké is never used as a mixer, bartenders and mixologists in the U.S. have embraced it, and the saké cocktail craze shows no sign of slowing. “We do supply some saké to accounts using it for everything from Asian Pear Martinis to Mojitos,” says Lehrman. “These tend to be quality-oriented accounts so we are less worried about any ‘cheapening’ effect that may result. In fact, it may be
the opposite.”

Weddington sees similar enthusiasm from his accounts. “Just when we thought the cocktail craze was tapering off it’s picked up in the last three to five months,” says Weddington. “This time around, people are embracing saké cocktails because they’re gluten- and sulfite-free and typically lower in alcohol than a cocktail made with a spirit.”

Creating saké cocktails is yet another option for the beer and wine-only licensees who want to offer mixed drinks. “Saké cocktails started as a way for people who didn’t have a hard alcohol license to offer mixed drinks,” says LoCascio. He notes that while the subtleties of some types of saké can be lost in a cocktail, a good bartender knows how to use it: “At craft cocktail bars you have bartenders who really understand the beverage and can allow the saké to express its characteristics.”

Kir Toranoko

From Restaurant Toranoko, Los Angeles, CA

2 fresh strawberries (plus strawberries for garnish)
¼ oz. simple syrup
2 oz. sake (Junmai)

Hand blend two strawberries, the simple syrup, and saké together
and pour into a Champagne glass. Top with Champagne
and garnish with the extra strawberry.

Broad Selection

With consumer awareness of saké growing, off-premise accounts are stocking their shelves with more saké selections for their customers. Melissa Lavrinc Smith, saké buyer for K&L Wine Merchants with three locations in California, carries about 40 saké selections ranging from $6 to $70. “We are committed to having only limited saké on hand to ensure that the turnover is great,” she says. Smith only brings in six bottles of each product at a time and sees sales at all price levels. “We sell more of our top two most expensive sakés than anything else, but there is some saké in the $15 to $20 range that we sell a good amount of,” she says. “The customers that have the most interest in quality and variety are buying in the $25 to $45 range.” K&L offers four saké tastings a year, and Smith also tells customers about the gluten-free aspect of saké: “It’s good for people with gluten allergies as an alternative to beer.”

Steven Bowles, the saké specialist at Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City, notes that most of his saké sales hover around the $20 price point. Astor carries about 120 different sakés. Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago started a saké program seven years ago when Brett Ponponi, the specialty spirits buyer, noticed an increase in Asian and sushi restaurants in the Chicago area. Binny’s stocks between 30 and 40 selections in their stores. Ponponi points to packaging as the initial barrier to higher sales. “There was a language barrier, literally, with Japanese characters on the labels,” says Ponponi. “But SakéOne and Vine Connections did a nice job with the back labels, and those were huge selling points for us. They explained things like the rice grind, the brewing time, and the sweetness level.” But Ponponi also notes that staff training was key to moving product. For Ponponi’s customers, “under $30 is the sweet spot,” although “720ml people are willing to spend $30 to 50 a bottle.”

In addition to saké sales in wine and liquor stores, three specialty retailers in the U.S. are devoted only to saké, including True Saké in San Francisco and Sakaya in New York City. Rick Smith opened Sakaya in December 2007 and has seen steady sales growth. Sakaya stocks 150 different premium, artisanal sakes (with more available online), ranging from $17.99 to $135. He offers weekly saké tastings for customers, often with the importer or producer pouring. “Saké is sort of where wine was 25 years ago,” says Smith. “All people knew was that there was red and there was white. Through a group of people who took wine and demystified it, the appreciation for wine expanded. Saké is in the infant stage of that process.”

While attitudes toward saké are definitely changing, merchants should still bear in mind current perceptions. Interestingly, Hiro Saké is prepared to help resellers handle both sides of the saké’s identity. Hiro Red—a Junmai saké with red-accented packaging—nods to the past, as it is brewed to be served warm or with Japanese food. Hiro Blue, with cool blue detailing, is a new super-premium Junmai-Ginjo that bridges the heritage of the past with the way we drink today. It has the character and body to be enjoyed chilled, over ice or in cocktails. Both versions were inspired by the ancient recipe of Hiroemon Takeda, a renowned Samurai and saké connoisseur, and use only specially polished rice from the Murakami plain in the Niigata Region.

Advantages Of Novelty

Because saké is still relatively new to the U.S. drinking mindset, training and consumer outreach are important. Gekkeikan, the volume leader in the market, has been especially active in this regard, with VP and National Sales Manager Yoshi Yumoto traveling extensively to work with both stores and restaurants. Interestingly, based on restaurant feedback, the company created a Gekkeikan tap handle, which is used by bars to serve saké perfectly chilled through existing apparatus. He also notes an upswing in saké-based cocktails, especially with the sparkling, low-alcohol (7%) Zipang. He reports that both the Zipang and the brand’s gently sweet Nigori are up 20% in sales this year.

Of course, merchants and restaurant staffs can’t count on having an expert on hand to make sense of saké to customers. Gekkeikan has developed a takeaway card that succinctly covers the distinct classifications of saké. (As a rule of thumb, the more the rice is milled, the better the saké; Junmai is 30% milled, Junmai-Ginjo is 40% milled, Junmai-Daiginjo is 50% milled.) There is quite a bit of good background online as well; JFC International’s site—sakeexpert.com—and hirosake.com are both thorough and user-friendly.

Another byproduct of the category’s relative novelty: New brands have been able to make considerable inroads in the U.S. TY KU Saké is craft-brewed in Nara, Japan, home of the world’s first saké brewery dating back to 680 A.D., yet the brand has only been available in nationwide in the U.S. since 2009. Brand Director Tara Fougner points out that about 75% of the saké consumed in the U.S. is made domestically.

The hot ticket from TY KU of late is the Silver Junmai, introduced at the beginning of 2011. Buoyed by a friendly price point (SRP $15 for 720ml) and its easy-to-pronounce name, TY KU is aiming to become a “house premium saké,” according to Fougner. Doubling down on the contemporary look, TY KU has just introduced the Silver in a 1.8L pouch. Besides keeping the saké fresh for weeks, the pouch chills in about 14 minutes, less than half the time needed for a bottle.

One characteristic of saké that surprises many people more familiar with wine, beer and spirits is its food-friendliness. According to Tetsuya Runato, marketing manager of Ozeki—which opened America’s first sake brewery in 1979—saké’s delicacy, relative to wine, makes it ideal for pairing with seafood. He recommends the Ozeki’s dry, creamy Karatanba with raw oysters, for example, and the lightly sweet Daiginjo with scallops. In general, he credits the fact that saké is low in acidity and high in umami (the so-called fifth taste), making the drink go especially well with seafood and other savory dishes.


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