The sake and shochu categories are growing in the United States as consumers are discovering that these alcohol beverages offer fewer calories, versatility in cocktails and lower alcohol than other adult beverages. Additional attributes that make these drinks attractive to consumers are that they are gluten free and sulfite free.
The trends that marketers and makers are seeing is that the American consumer is catching on and trading up from sake bombs and warm table sake.
“I think the awareness is growing on all levels, but there is still a huge variation between individual consumers,” says Kristoffer Miller, project coordinator for the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). “It’s pretty amazing how much awareness there is in some sectors. There are many people now that are actively challenging the restaurants they go to and asking them to bring in better or more interesting varieties.”
Miller, based out of the Los Angeles branch of the organization, also notes however, that there still is quite a large number of consumers who have little or no awareness about the segments, which presents an opportunity for marketers to fill that void.
JETRO is a non-profit Japanese government related organization that promotes trade and investment opportunities for business and companies in the United States and Japan, including food and drinks. According to the organization, the volume of sake imported into the U.S. from Japan has almost doubled between 2002 and 2012. For shochu, that import volume slightly declined between 2008 and 2012, but seems to be on the rise once more, up nearly 2 percent between 2011 and 2012.
Looking to help broaden awareness, sake and shochu marketers are making their brands more approachable with easy and relatable names and standout packaging.
“How can you love somebody if you don’t know their name?” asks Marco De Stefanis, co-founder and CMO of Hiro Sake.
When De Stefanis set out to put a sake brand on the shelf he wanted it to be something that consumers could pronounce and a package that reinforced the brand image. Hiro Sake Red (Junmai) is brewed to serve hot and Hiro Sake Blue (Junmai Ginjo) is for serving chilled or in cocktails.
Hiro sakes are imported from Japan and manufactured in a brewery that was established in 1635. It is available in 11 states on the East Coast.
“All of this romance and art work of Japanese calligraphy is beautiful, but difficult to navigate for the general consumer who doesn’t speak Japanese,” he says.
With Hiro, the strategy is to introduce consumers to a quality product they can identify with and through sampling in the on- and off-premise. In the on-premise, Hiro is offered in cocktails mixed with flavors like coconut water or guava juice, or as an alternative to wine—De Stefanis says it is a good substitute for Sauvignon Blanc.
“It is true that the general public associates sake with sushi and sashimi, but there are far more occasions than that,” says De Stefanis, such as meats as well as foods that would typically be paired with white wine.
TY KU, packed in a triangular bottle, is another imported Japanese sake brand that is resonating with consumers. Tara Fougner, director of marketing for TY KU Sake & Spirits says she’s finding the brand is growing in non-Asian accounts like Morton’s Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill as well as World of Wings—a testament to the growth of the segment.
TY KU offers TY KU Sake Black, a super premium Junmai Ginjo (the brand’s No. 1 seller) and TY KU Sake Silver (Junmai) as well as TY KU Coconut Nigori sake and a citrus liqueur.
“We are launching a national cocktail program with the Renaissance Hotels this summer called Soul of Sake,” says Fougner. “It is dedicated to TY KU cocktails that were made by Francesco LaFranconi. That says a lot about the rise of sake.”
LaFranconi is the executive director of mixology and spirits educator for Southern Wine and Spirits (SW&S) of Nevada. TY KU recently entered into a major nationwide partnership with SW&S, according to Fougner.
“With their help and dedication, we will see TY KU Sake break out and achieve our goal of doubling our business in 2013,” she says.
This year, TY KU also launched its first national television commercial and marketing campaign with its partner, CeeLo Green, called “Share On,” inspired by the Japanese tradition of pouring sake for friends and loved ones as a sign of respect.
In addition to investing millions of dollars in media, TY KU also is investing in education with the largest team of Sake Level 1 professionals in the U.S., notes Fougner. “It is very important for us to have credibility when speaking to the sake category and educating on every level,” she says.
The company also offers TY KU Soju at only 60 calories per serving. “Soju/Shochu has been growing as well, but not at the rapid pace of sake,” notes Fougner. “There is still much more room for soju/shochu to grow, and we’re excited to continue to further build the TY KU brand awareness to create a bigger platform for the category.”
Fougner adds: “Our main goal is to become the first trusted premium brand name in sake; that is where the biggest opportunity is right now. With the brand awareness of TY KU Sake, we educate our existing brand enthusiasts and core consumers on the shochu category.”