In the west, there are usually two spots where you’re guaranteed to find sake: Japanese restaurants and small convenience stores that serve the Japanese diaspora. You’re also likely to have a preconceived idea of what your sake-drinking experience will be: it’ll arrive in a white ceramic carafe, and a small amount of clear liquid will be poured into a shallow cup.
Made from fermented rice, sake is distinguished from other rice alcohols by its alcohol quantity and is still regularly confused with other rice alcohols in Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. In and of itself, sake is as complex as wine. From the type and size of the rice grain to the source of the water, each element makes up a unique blend that distinguishes the sake from others.
But consumption in the Japanese market is declining rapidly, for two reasons. With the age group between 40 and 60 expected to consume most, the younger generation are moving away from traditional breweries, and the rapidly ageing population are veering away from drinking altogether. With domestic sales looking bleak, Japan has increasingly turned to export to continue the age-old tradition. The US is currently the largest importer of sake, with Hong Kong and China not far behind. In the UK alone, $54.5bn of sake was imported in 2017. Sake has been a tax-free product for tourists coming to Japan since October 2017, and the industry is slowly being deregulated to make room for new entrants producing sake exclusively for export.
‘The challenge with a product that is so tied to tradition is that it is a delicate balance between staying true to its roots, and making it palatable to the mass market.’
We’ve been exploring the trend of entrepreneurs bringing ‘ethnic’ food products to the masses. Usually relegated to the ‘world food’ aisle of the supermarket, the signal is that they are only intended for a small portion of the population. Brands like Diaspora Co and Omsom have been challenging that: the latter, selling ‘starter kits’ of Southeast Asian food, recently posted research on its Instagram that shows the enormous spending power of minorities, who are expected to control $19trn of wealth by 2023.
The challenge with branding and exporting a product that is so tied to tradition, like sake, is that it is a delicate balance between staying true to its roots and making it palatable to the mass market. On one hand, the grassroots smallholder businesses that prop up these industries don’t have the marketing resources to expand beyond their immediate markets. On the flip side, those importing international products need to be able to keep the core offering and use case, while tweaking branding and communication to widen the products’ appeal.
Genki Ito spent 10 years importing Japanese food and drink to the US. When it came to sake, not only was consumer recognition really low, but people didn’t know how complex sake was: ‘People are familiar with the terminology and complexity of wine, but despite wine and sake having similarities, sake has been reduced to something you take shots of,’ he explains.
Noticing that there was a large gap and huge potential for storytelling and education about sake, Genki launched Tippsy, a subscription service that includes mini sake bottles, tasting kits and video tasting experiences that dig into the depths of the ingredients and manufacturing processes.
Bringing an online consumer experience to sake signals that the industry is starting to move with the times. Similarly, in London, Kanpai brings the craft brewery movement to sake, while The Ethical Spirits & Co is building a circular economy around sake. Elsewhere, conscious consumers are driving additional focus to the terroir of sake, and a sake tourism industry was beginning to emerge in Japan – only to be knocked back again by Covid. Female-run breweries are also on the up, despite sake being a traditionally male-dominated industry, and that is a brand story that speaks for itself.
The prudent ‘modernisation’ of sake and other products of the ‘ethnic’ aisle also bring to light the importance of distribution channels. Limiting their mainstream exposure by cornering them into world-food aisles and specialist stores, it's no wonder that there is stigma or lack of awareness around international cuisines – the supply chain doesn’t lend itself well to customers learning more about the products. While online sales might offer some respite, these new brands will have to invest in education that draws new audiences to their products. Clever communication that doesn’t lose the current audience and somehow captivates a new one is the way to go.