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Expanding The Saké Circle

Posted on  | September 23, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Saké messaging in the U.S. has never been simple. While often mistaken for rice wine, saké is actually fermented like beer and meant to be enjoyed like wine. Two key points to communicate: most of the products reaching our market are premium Junmai sakés, and are best served cool.

Tips for easing saké into the wine conversation—and on to American tables

As a niche product, saké is unlikely to play a major role for retailers in the immediate future. But it is a nice way to add depth to your product line and have conversations with customers. Here are some tips for starting up or improving your saké program.

Saké is perishable, so freshness is key. Saké doesn’t get better in the bottle and its shelf life is shorter than your distributor might tell you. It starts to lose its charm about a year after its bottling date. Melissa Lavrinc Smith, the saké buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in California, says she only buys a six-pack at a time of each saké, even at the risk of selling out.

The good news is that all Japanese sakés have a bottling date on them. The bad news is that the date is usually written in Japanese, and they still use a calendar based on the number of years the current emperor has been in the Imperial Palace. (This year is Heisei 26.) “I check the dates on everything that comes in,” Smith says. “If I have a question about not being able to read the dates, I ask the vendor. I’ve built my reputation on selling fresh saké.”

Basic types are the foundation to ‘getting’ saké. Sakés are defined in two ways: by the purity of the ingredients, and how much of the rice is polished away. For the purity, if it’s Junmai, then only rice, water and koji mold are used, for a very pure product. Most sakés sold in the U.S., other than the very cheapest, are Junmai.

So the main differentiation is the polishing ratio, how much rice grain has been polished away. Price increases the more grain is lost. If a saké is Junmai Ginjo, it has a polishing ratio of 60% or less. A Junmai Daiginjo has a polishing ratio of 50% or less. Junmai Ginjos are the most wine-like, fruity sakés and possibly the easiest to introduce to your customers, but they tend to be in the mid-priced $30-$40 range. The more expensive Junmai Daiginjos are delicate, floral, ethereal, and not really comparable to any wine. They’re very sensitive to heat and light, so they must be refrigerated. You might do well putting both of them next to the chilled white wines with shelf talkers describing their taste profiles.

Regular Junmai (non-Ginjo) sakés can go on the shelves. These tend to be full-bodied and not fruit-driven. You might put them near Rhône whites, especially if you already have an “Alternatives to Chardonnay” shelf.

Three more key saké terms to know.  Nama means “raw.” These are unpasteurized sakés, can be delightful, but are even more perishable than others. Genshu means “cask strength.” Most sakés have water added to bring them down to about 15 to 16% alcohol. Genshu sakés are usually 18 to 20% alcohol, but can be even higher. Recommend them to fans of richer wines. Nigori means “cloudy.” These sakés are unfiltered and  have some unfermented rice included; they tend to be sweet.

Saké customers shop by price, but not like wine customers. If you don’t already have a significant saké program, you’re unlikely to encounter many customers who will celebrate finding a great mid-range bottle at $35. K&L’s Smith says that for her, even in the relatively saké-savvy San Francisco Bay Area, sakés that sell the best are the cheapest… and the most expensive. “Some customers who decide to give it a try figure they might as well start at the top,” Smith says, “kind of like clubbers who splurge on a bottle of Cristal.”

The good news is that the high end for saké in a retail environment is about $75. At the low end, it’s hard to find memorable saké under $20, but that’s where customers like to shop. “I work my ass off to find a killer $12 to $14 bottle of saké,” Smith says. She likes Hakutsuru, either the Junmai or the Junmai Ginjo.

Personally, in that price range, I like Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto, which has a full-bodied, clean taste profile that makes it friendly for beginners, as well as an easy-to-remember name (“It’s like that film director”).

Use shelf talkers and connect saké with foods people know. It’s tempting to declare “sashimi and sushi” as a pairing with all sakés, but Smith says she sells more by refusing to do so. Beau Timken, of the San Francisco store True Sake, has long been a proponent of pairing sakés with non-Japanese dishes. A few blocks from True Sake, Memphis Minnie’s barbecue restaurant proves the point with its extensive saké selection. They recommend Junmais with pork and Ginjos with chicken.

It’s best to take your own tasting notes, so you can discuss them with customers, but consider suggesting a fruity saké like Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo with roast chicken. Smith likes to recommend Nigori with Indian curry.

Good sakés are best served cool. This phrase is not a bad thing to place on a shelf talker near basically every premium saké in the store. Many people still have only experienced the cheapest of sakés served piping hot. You can go down a rabbit hole of worrying about whether individual premium sakés are better at refrigerator temperature or room temperature. Personally I drink Ginjos and Daiginjos at refrigerator-to-cellar temperature and Junmais at cellar-to-room temperature. As with wine, it’s imprecise. But they’re all better “cool.”

Brand Power As a Bridge

The language of saké remains a hurdle for most Americans—is all the more reason that retailers can benefit from branded outreach, which brings consumer recognition to the point of sale.

Ty Ku, rated by Nielsen as the fastest growing brand in the U.S. for three years in a row, has both eye-catching packaging and entry into the nightclub market. Club-goers might specifically request it and would probably be happy at how much cheaper it is in a store. Moreover, food-oriented promotions with chef Ming Tsai promise to strike an appealing mainstream chord.

Gekkeikan’s plans for 2015 are to focus on education and premiumization to benefit the entire category. “As the category leader, we feel we have the responsibility to drive the message that there is much more to saké than just hot or cold,” says Kate Laufer, VP at importer Sidney Frank. “We are looking to establish an awareness level that there is a saké for everyone’s palate from dry to sweet, and some with a bit of effervescence.”


October 1st is World Sake Day; created in 1978, it marks the start of the new brewing season.

Saké is the oldest known spirit in the world, first produced in China in 4800 BC. In Japan it came to be known as “the drink of the Gods.”

Tradition holds that a person must never pour their own saké. Saké is naturally free of gluten, sulfites and tannins.


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