June 2011

Sake Environment - The TOP TEN Reasons Why Sake Isn't More Popular

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, June, Newsletter
I was at a dinner party the other night and the conversation turned to sake. For the next ten minutes people raved about how much they loved it. I mean it was like being at a sake love fest. The compliments were many and quite amazing. I shook my head in that ol' man of wisdom slow up and down nod. If I had a long grey goatee I would have surely been stroking it to the rhythm of the positive comments. Then at the next pause in the song of "we love sake" one of the guests asked me point blank, "Why isn't sake more popular?"

Crickets! Silence. And then a long "ummmmmmmmmmmmm" dribbled from my garage door-like opened mouth. "Ummmmmmmmmm" Yes, it was a very long "Umm." One of those "Umms" that tells the whole story before you even utter a word. "Ummmmm the reasons are many, which do you want first?" Then it became a game because one of the guests reads the True Sake Newsletter, and she said, "why not give us your Top Ten reasons list?"

"Ummmmm Okay!"

I prefaced the list by stating that sake sales have been increasing each and every year for the past decade. This didn't have the effect that I was looking for and realized that they really wanted to know why sake isn't more noticeable or evident in the booze market. So, I then began listing reasons, and it sounded a little something like this:

The TOP TEN Reasons Why Sake Isn't More Popular:

10) Lazy Consumers
Yes I blame the end users for many of sake's perceived problems. Do you know how often people say that they can never remember the name of a sake and that is why they don't go out and actively search for it.

9) Too Few Sources
Yes, I blame myself here. There are not enough True Sakes. There are not enough stores, shops, and on-line stores to allow and promote people to source and buy sake.

8) Stereotypical Consumers
If I hear this one again I will ram a 1.8L sake bottle into my brain: "I only drink sake when I get sushi!" Right there folks! It's a killer. If you only drink sake when you eat sushi then you aren't drinking enough sake. How about I only drink wine when I have pasta?

7) Bad Sake Experience
If you think sake is a hard alcohol, you're not buying a lot of sake. If you think sake is just heated up jet fuel or cold plonk then you are not buying a lot of sake. If you think that you must "shoot" sake out of shot glasses you are not buying a lot of sake. If you only drink sake bombs then you are not drinking a lot of sake. And that large segment of 1st first time sake drinkers who had a bad experience have never returned.

6) Poorly Handled and Promoted Product
The distributors of sake are a very key cog in the rice and water machine. If they get it, then the local market gets it. If they don't they are doing a disservice to the industry. Poorly handled sake makes for bad sake, and if people taste bad sake then they will not be buying a lot of sake. If the distributors do not hit the street and preach sake to restaurants and stores then restaurants and stores won't promote sake. It's that simple.

5) Wine Shops and Bargain Stores
Killers one and all! Sake is treated like any other old libation in such environments. But not only that, sake is treated like any old distilled beverage, which it is not. You can leave a bottle of rum on the shelf for two years. You cannot do that with sake. It takes a lot of hand selling to sell sake. These types of stores treat sake like a second-hand booze. They know nothing, and simply put it out to rot. Then they sell the rot.

4) Nuclear Sake
This is a relatively new chink in the armor. But it is out there. Sake is from Japan and Japan is radioactive, ergo sake is radioactive. We hear it every once in a while and perhaps may hear it more down the road.

3) Restaurant Sake Pricing and Presentation
My biggest sake pet peeve. Restaurants are killing the popularity of sake by treating it differently than wine. For starters they charge a ton for sake. Then they serve it in small little glasses. So on a wine menu you will see a large glass of wine (5-6oz) for $9 or a puny glass of sake (2-3oz) for $14. Of course you'll take the wine. Restaurants need to increase the pour and decrease the price. So what if you have to lower the mark-up!

2) The Dollar To The Yen
The buck is weak and the yen is ogre strong! It's that simple, we have to sell sake for way too much money. Sake is far too expensive. We used to say that sake was roughly 20% more expensive in the States than in Japan. Now we have to say that sake is roughly 30-35% more expensive in the States than in Japan. And because of our three tier system in the US, the importer, the distributor, and the retailer or restaurant all add their mark- ups, which results in sakes that are not worth the asking price.

1) No Sake Advertising
Have you ever seen a sake ad or commercial? Nope! The number one reason why sake is not more popular is that the industry never advertises. There are a couple American sake companies who are doing a great job branding, marketing and sight-selling their sakes, but the imported sake market is as quiet as Dr. Kevorkian. (Yah he died last week!) There is zero and I mean zero effort to promote the industry via ad campaigns, or to sight-sell single sakes or breweries by marketing other than at trade shows. It is so painful that the last popularity blip on the radar for sake came from the movie "Lost in Translation."

There are other factors for certain, especially when you consider that sake or perhaps premium sake is so new to the booze scene in the US. The sake market here is in its infancy compared to wine, beer, and most spirits. Add to that the fact that we don't really even have a next generation of sake drinkers yet, because again the market is so young and it is evident that it's hard to be popular when nobody even knows about sake.

When proofing this piece Miwa stated that we should do a Top Ten "Why Sake Should Be More Popular!" List, so keep your eyes peeled for the July issue when we will explore the opposite to this list.

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