April 2008

Sake Big Picture - 5 Questions For 5 Importers

Posted by admin in 2008, April, Newsletter

sake big picture april 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 latest "global vision" sake importer is none other than Ed Lehrman, who along with partner Nick Ramkowsky, can lay claim to being the first non-Japanese "guys" with national distribution in the US. (The "white boy" claim to fame must be confirmed with fellow importer Chris Pearce of World Sake Imports, who started roughly the same time in Hawaii.) Ed and Nick's company is called Vine Connections - and yes sake does not grow on vines, so indeed they were importing wine as well. Check out their website to see that in all likelihood you know their brews.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Ed and Nick for their pioneering efforts to not only educated the West about sake, but also their tremendous ability to get sake into Western restaurants - to break that stubborn sushi and sake stereotype. I will be honest except for Kazu Yamazaki from Japan Prestige (see newsletter March'08) there was not a lot of education coming from Japanese sake importing companies. The food importing companies that carried sake as a sidebar at first were doing absolutely nothing to make meaning of sake. And the frontline guys who knew the most about sake - sushi chefs - did not want to communicate their knowledge. Ed and Nick raised the bar of awareness and should be credited in large part for the tremendous success that sake is seeing today in the liquid world.

So from the mouth of the man who brings us "Dreamy Clouds" "Divine Droplets" "Wandering Poet" "Hawk In The Heavens" "Root of Innocence" and "Pride of the Village" herewith is Ed Lehrman and his answers to:

"The 5 Question Interview With 5 Different Importer"BT: Define the US sake market?

EL: "Still very small - growing very quickly - but still trailing the Japanese food buzz by a long distance. In my opinion sake accounts for 5% penetration in the restaurant and retail total alcohol sales. In terms of sake sales we are seeing or hearing about annual growth rates between 16-20%. (This is for total import sake sales) I do believe that sake will catch up to the Japanese food trend and we have been striving to get the masses to think of sake as a normal drink with food like wine or beer and not something exotic that must be consumed at a Japanese restaurant.

Roughly 60% of our sake sales go to restaurants that have no relation to Japanese/Asian food, but there is such a blurring of crossover ingredients in this fusion cuisine world. There is a small percentage of Americans who 'Get it,' and they know a lot and drink a lot of sake. Styles of drinks have universal appeal. Sake is there! The product is hard to understand, but the taste is not. And drinkers are taste driven. As a market we are the great melting pot of trying out new things - far better than Europe in this regard. So the outlook for acceptance is great."

BT: Define your portfolio of sakes and sake breweries?

EL: "Easy - we have the greatest range and diversity of flavors within the narrowest quality band. You can experience a group of flavors and textures without thinking one sake is better or worse. Our brewers have immaculate attention to detail and similar to a winery we firmly believe that the last 5% of attention produces a 20% increase in quality."

BT: How have tastes changed in the US market?

EL: "They haven't! They are still developing. We have not seen taste patterns emerge yet. Is it a strength or a weakness? We see it as a strength as there is great room to experience quality relatively early in the new drinking experience process. By far Nigori is our biggest seller, which is weird because our Nigoris tend to be fairly dry styles. But we are seeing a migration away from Nigori, especially after these drinkers taste filtered sake."

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

EL: "Not yet! We have had no reason to eliminate any brews or breweries. Surely some sakes move far faster than others. And funny enough some of our slower sellers find a specific audience in one part or one segment of the country that is large enough to keep the product moving. We still have all 13 breweries that we started with, and they are so old and established it's not like they would tank or have serious quality issues under our watch. What's nine years to a 300 year-old brewery?

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

EL: "Masumi (Miyasaka Shuzo from Nagano Prefecture) I love the Junmai - Okuden Kantsukuri 'Mirror of Truth' - it has a great texture with melon elements bordering on honey dew and goes great with salty Japanese food because of it's low acidity focus."

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