Sake Industry - Finally Chasing Customers
Well well well! It’s been a very time in the making! In fact, I’m sort of surprised it’s taken so long, but nothing about the sake industry surprises me anymore. As a retailer of sake for over a decade and a half, I’ve been on the front lines watching sake compete with other alcohols and libations. In a word, it hasn’t been pretty. Nope, sake hasn’t been like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Or 300, or any other war movie where the little guy wins the day and bests the far more numerous opponent. No not at all. Sake didn’t do a lot of kicking butt! It sort of sat there and wondered what it was in the grand scheme of things.
So for years I’d go back and speak in Japan to the Japanese Ministries, to the Brewers Association, to prefectural brewery groups, to individual brewers, and to anybody who would listen that sake needed to take the fight to the market. Sake could no longer stand there stoically and expect new customers to flock to their product. I had to convince them that sake had to compete for every customer in the booze business, and I had to express that the business was cutthroat! In a word, sake needed to grow up. The sake industry needed to realize that their graying customer base needed fortifying with younger and more female consumers. There is so much booze out there! There are so many ways to spend your alcohol dollar! Sake was a sushi restaurant novelty that was comfortable with this space and their narrow demographic. But sake had to change.
As importers in the sake segment changed. So too did Sake’s direction. First, dedicated sake importers helped expand the total inventory level of sake. Then western importers changed the destination of sake. Finally sake leaked out of the sushi restaurant paradigm and into the mean streets of alcohol combat.
Mixologists and bartenders put sake cocktails into bars and the landscape changed even more. The Asian fusion boom also got sake mindsets off of just sake and sushi!
Next, came the rapid increase in sake education courses and titles and sake ventured more into the wine world. But it didn’t stop there. Sake brewers have now elevated the fight to put sake in even more unique places and spaces.
Sake brewers now have total clarity that they are in a battle with other libations world wide. They get it! Their offerings now get it! I used to use the term “New World Sakes” to describe new brewing efforts that changed traditional sake into a competitive brew along the lines of low alcohol fruity sakes, infused sakes, and sparkling sakes. Now brewers are using other techniques such as light pasteurization to create different expressions of sake that speak to new segments. Add to that new packaging and marketing techniques sake has developed into a lean mean fighting machine.
The other day a friend from Niigata brought me a bottle of sake and a box of chocolates. He said taste this sake “made for chocolate!” Basically, he brought me a story. He brought me a sake that had its own mission, very much like the mission of Cowboy Yamahai, which was formulated and brewed to pair with meat! Like at True Sake, we currently have the exclusive rights to Miroku from Kondo Shuzo, who brewed a sake that is to pair with French cuisine and game like venison! It has a mission, it has a goal! It was made to compete against French wines!
I love the new fight in the sake world. I love doing battle. I love competing for customers! I believe so entirely much in sake that I embrace competition. It’s now our proving grounds! And sake is here to compete!
I think we will continue to see new sake efforts such as private labeling and smaller exporting groups to further place sake in new competitive alcohol environments. And of course I cannot die until every restaurant that has a wine menu also has a sake on that list!
Sake is in the fight. It should be fun to watch new stories and missions come out of the breweries in the upcoming years.