March 2008

Sake Big Picture - 5 Questions For 5 Importers

Posted by admin in 2008, March, Newsletter

sake big picture march 2008Nobody knows the "sake scene in the US" more than the importers of sake. From their vantage point they get to see the movement of sake throughout the states, what sakes do well, and of course how much sake is being sold. Trends and patterns are witnessed first by these guys, and in some cases they even try to influence said trends and patterns (go figure!). There are roughly 15 - what I would call significant - importers in terms of volume and perhaps 15 more that are in the game. Heck there are even several importers who only bring in a brew or two.

So it is no coincidence that I spend a great deal of time with these guys picking their minds and trying to provide as much information from my end as a retailer of their products. The information river is indeed flowing, and as such I felt it would be unique to interview 5 importers of different sized companies and ask them the same 5 "pressing" questions to extract as much usable and interesting information for our delight.

My first target is perhaps the biggest fish in the importing sea. Kazu Yamazaki from Japan Prestige Sake International imports more sake into the United States than any other firm. His stable of brews includes names such as Otokoyama (the #1 imported sake into the US), Wakatake Onikoroshi, Harushika, Nishinoseki, etc. Based in NYC these guys were the first dedicated large-scale sake importing company that competed with the enormous Japanese food companies that dabbled in sake. Armed with a strong portfolio of brews Japan Prestige courted non-Japanese restaurants for the first time, and have spent over a decade trying to get sake in western restaurants.

In traditional Japanese fashion Kazu answered each question in War and Peace fashion, and my hand got tired and bloody from writing down his extended thoughts. So please do excuse the paraphrasing and remember that I never use a recording device, quite the opposite really for I use a sake-soaked sponge of a brain to use my powerful sense of recall. What? What was I just saying? Never mind. Herewith is the first of the"5 For 5" interviews with Kazu Yamazaki:

BT: Define the US sake market?KY: "Simple and complicated. 10 years ago the US market was like a baby. Today it is like young teenager. For a long time there was no education about sake -just bad thoughts of bad sake drinking experiences. Most people thought sake was cheap hot bad sake. And many saw sake as a real hard alcohol - too hard for most. It was thought that only people who like to drink alcohol liked sake, and that made other first timers recoil. And of course the only place to drink sake was in Japanese restaurants. Many people for a long time didn't eat Japanese food, and they didn't have access to sake.But things have slowly changed. People to this day do not really understand the categories of sake - or what those categories really mean in a general flavor/style sense. Many people within the coasts of the US still think that there is only one style of sake - hot. But in the last several years we are seeing an improvement in the understanding of sake and also a trend towards sweeter sakes. More and more people are being exposed to better sakes in different styles of restaurants, and their sense of good sake and bad sake are improving. There is huge potential for this market as the understanding is catching up to the concept of sake."

BT: Define your portfolio of sakes and sake breweries?

KY: " My father-in-law (founder of the company in Japan) saw a very bad trend in Japan over 40 years ago. He saw a disturbing trend of sake sales sliding down and down. But worse than that the junk sake market was going up. The bad sake was doing better and better because it was more affordable. But the quality was horrible. My father-in-law went against the trend and supported small local brewers who were making very good local sake. They made sake that was loved by their immediate communities but not known elsewhere. So he focused on these small (Jizake) breweries and brought their products national in Japan. The big cities went crazy for the better products.

Our portfolio is an extension of this philosophy that small artisan makers of sake do a better job than major brewers. They make better sake and the quality is found in the taste. We represent over 100 of these small breweries and a large portion of their products are available in the US. We had faith in the over-seas market - that they would see the difference in good quality sake - and they have"

BT: How have tastes changed in the US market?

KY: "Easy! Tastes have gone from dry to fruity. In general most people enjoy a fruitier product with lots of flavor. But we stress trying other categories other than the generally-fruity Ginjo and Dai Ginjo sakes. I myself prefer Junmai grade sake and feel that most Americans will like these sakes eventually. But for now they are still trying to distinguish between Ginjo and Dai Ginjo sake. Price of course plays a big part; many drink more expensive sakes because they think that they will be better. If I pour a Junmai, Ginjo and Dai Ginjo at a sake tasting - most drinkers say they like the Dai Ginjo. Americans like a fruit-filled drinking experience. Clean and fruity is a style that has become very popular.

Will this trend to fruitier continue? I don't know. But I do know that balance really is the next step in the learning process. Once consumers find balance in sake then the sweet vs. dry and Junmai vs. Dai Ginjo debate is over. They will just know good sake - fruity or not!

BT: Have you had to eliminate any brews or breweries from your portfolio - if so for what reason?

KY: "Some sake is not good quality. There are many reasons that sake changes -new sake maker (toji), or the ingredients weren't good, or they made a mistake in production. The point is that there can be a bad year for whatever reason. But if that bad year becomes two or three then yes there is a quality issue and we must make a change - or make the brewery make a serious change. Thanks to people like you we are getting more and more feedback from the customers on what is drinking with quality and what is not. We are also perfecting our shipment processes to keep the products better stored. But yes we drop sakes all of the time and pick up new ones to replace them. In regards to dropping breweries this is a slower process - less common. Many breweries cut themselves as they try to save costs and end-up making a less quality product. And yes many breweries are going out of business because of a drop in demand in Japan. It is hard to make sake and stay in business."

BT: Name one sake or brewery in one of your competitor's portfolios that you wish that you had in your portfolio?

KY: (lot's of humming and huffing..... a really tough question to ask these guys) "I would say the brewery called Isojiman." (This brewery in Shizuoka Prefecture is imported by Bonzai Beverage Corp.)

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