Sake Story - How Do Sakes Get Into the True Sake Portfolio?
Two words - "pay-off and cheapest."
Two more "True" words - "Quality and Fit"
I often joke that I drink a lot of bad sake so you don't have to! Well I need to reevaluate that to say that "We" at True Sake drink a lot of bad sake so that you don't have to. And perhaps I'm being a little harsh using the "bad" word, as there is no such thing as bad sake. (Yes, my bias-bar is very low, which is most evident by my own mental grading system where all sakes get an A- unless they are great and get A's and A+'s or really really really putrid and get a B+'s)
Grading a brew via a number rating or a letter rating is bunk! I don't like doing it. One person's 92 is another person's 29, especially if that person is a dyslectic drinker. I have been asked by editors and publisher's to put a number or a letter to a sake, and I will simply not do it. I actually talked the Wine Spectator guys out of putting numbers to the brews that I helped them review in an issue last year. I mean come on. 89 or 90? You as a consumer would take the 90 every day of the week, and yet it is supposedly tad bit "gooder" than the 89. I don't buy it. Especially when my other manta/motto slips in: "Everybody is the champion of their own palette." So my definition of a 93 for a certain sake may be a 93 for one drinker, but I would change it to a 83 with another drinker in mind. And that is why we are lucky at the store to be able to give specific recommendations, without numbers and letters, to specific customers.
But without a grading system per se, how do sakes make it into our portfolio? Good question - glad that you didn't ask. It's easy - we taste everything extensively - almost too extensively! And we do not do fly-by distributor tastings to make a call on a sake in two or three sips of a bottle that may have been open for a week. We like to be very specific! The more specific we are with the sakes the better for you!
Do storks drop baby sake bundles off at the store on golden sunny days? Almost! We actually get sake samples three or four ways - from the brewers themselves, from the importers, from the distributors, and from folks looking to become an importer etc. (We also get a lot of unsolicited brews from folks who are thinking a sake would do well in the States.) Back in the day - this may have been a couple of sakes per month, but today it's literally raining bottles of sample sakes. Good for savvy sake drinkers, way bad for poor Beau's liver. There is just a ton of sake out there. Is it all good? Nope. Is it all bad? Nope. Is it all average? Not at all. That is why we taste and re-taste all of the offerings, to define-define-define what each sake is and will become.
Now I do lie - not a lot, but I just did. I do use a number system to rate sakes - but it's not one of THOSE number systems. I use a 1-5 scale to see if the sake has a "fit" in our line-up. For example a 1 means that this particular sake "will never ever ever ever be sold at True Sake" as in a snowball's chance in hell. Just wont happen! And conversely a 5 means that the sake is on our shelves now or will be there shortly. Time for a deeper example - let's say we have a deep and rich Junmai Ginjo that drinks great and is very affordable. Would we replace that with another Junmai Ginjo that is deep and rich and is okay? No way! So it takes better brews to knock off current brews.
When we taste we are saying to ourselves "wow" this is a very grainy and earthy dry sake - do we have something like this in stock now? Is there a fit or "need" for this type of brew? But and this is a huge BUT - we will never sacrifice "quality" to fill a fit. A lot of drinkers like their very tight and crisp Niigata-style clean Ginjo sakes, and will ask for something similar. We taste a lot of these brews, but usually there is a huge disqualifier in regards to the quality so we simply will not carry something that would sell, but we feel is inferior to what may become available. Essentially we will hold out for the better "player."
Personally I do not like "axing" sakes. It hurts. It's like telling one of your kids to beat it! But we do! We have and will again. And this comes back to the "championing" process of our inventory. We will notice that something is not moving. "Man I haven't tasted that in a long time!" "Miwa have you?" "Lynette you?" And soon it becomes evident that the sake does not have a champion at the store. So we taste it. It's hard keeping abreast of 250 rotating sakes. But we do it - for this exact reason. Does the brew still have a fit? Is the quality still there? Why is it being by-passed for other sakes? And then BINGO we will see why. Maybe it lost some quality - maybe it's not drinking as well as a similar brew that folks are gravitating to. Usually the reason presents itself, and we react. We love our brewers - we love them a lot, but we will not carry a sake for friendship purposes only. The quality and the fit has to be there. As cold as that sounds!
We also lose the ability to sell sakes - which sucks. This occurs when our importers or more often our distributors say that they will not carry certain sakes anymore. For example there is a really cool brewery in Yamagata that makes two unusual sakes that I loved to sell. (Rokkasen - plump and sweet Junmai with high acidity and Yamahoushi - a clean and fruity crisp Junmai Ginjo with a little twang of alcohol.) Our local distributor no longer wants to carry these sakes - so we are out! Cannot get them. Done. Finis. Bummer. Now we are tasting sakes looking to fill these two "fits," - do you know of any?
I guess the bottom line is that we are really on top of our product. We have slotted and positioned our inventory well - in fact nobody does it better - nobody. And I am extremely proud of this. But more importantly - you are getting the best of the best. You are drinking some killer sakes, and have access to more because of our due diligence and efforts to keep our inventory nothing less than superb!