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Exclusive: Gekkeikan Sake Moves From Sidney Frank To Shaw-Ross

November 4, 2015

Shaw-Ross International Importers has become the exclusive U.S. importer for Gekkeikan sake, SND has learned. Gekkeikan has been marketed in the U.S. by Sidney Frank Importing Company since 1972. The new agreement is effective January 1.

Gekkeikan, based in Kyoto, Japan, had total U.S. depletions of 475,000 cases in 2014 and has followed a steady growth path of about 5% for many years, according to Impact Databank. Gekkeikan offers 16 skus in the U.S. market, but Shaw-Ross managing director Bruce Hunter says the two partners will take a more narrowed approach.

“We’ll be focusing on a select group of products,” says Hunter. “Most of Gekkeikan’s volume is at $15 and below (a 750-ml.), but we see tremendous opportunity with the more upscale labels. We can grow the high end of the portfolio while still maintaining the viability of the commercial base.”

At the commercial tier, Shaw-Ross will concentrate on three U.S.-made Gekkeikan labels: Haiku ($11), Traditional ($7) and Black and Gold ($15). Gekkeikan’s U.S.-made sakes are produced at its facility in Folsom, California, which has operated since 1990. Located northeast of Sacramento, Folsom was chosen for its high-quality water, sourced from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range. Rice for the sakes is also grown and milled there. The Folsom plant accounts for about 90% of Gekkeikan’s volume in the U.S., with the remainder comprised of its Japan-made higher marques.

Among those higher-end Japanese labels, efforts will center on Horin ($45), which currently sells about 10,000 cases, as well Suzaku ($25) and the unfiltered sake brand Nigori ($13). “Because of our sales force and our footprint in the market, we feel we can make Gekkeikan the icon of high-end sake,” Hunter says. “We plan to allocate significant marketing resources and increase our sales force. American consumers aren’t really aware of what goes into making fine sake. We want to tell that story through the upscale expressions.”

Gekkeikan has a surprisingly large presence in the national retail chains, including Target, Winn Dixie, Publix, Safeway, Albertston’s, Raley’s and many others. It’s also strong in the on-premise, in local restaurants as well as national accounts including Stir Crazy, P.F. Chang’s and Kona Grill, where it’s served by the carafe.

Key to the brand strategy will be promoting Gekkeikan served in a wine glass, chilled, rather than warm and in a traditional sake cup. “We want to discuss Gekkeikan as if it were a wine,” says Hunter. “To really enjoy its flavor profile, sake should be consumed chilled, in a wine glass. That’s something we’ll be emphasizing heavily.”

Shaw-Ross, a unit of Southern Wine & Spirits, has a wine portfolio of around 2 million cases, led by Chilean label Gato Negro at 665,000 cases and Real Sangria at 560,000 cases, according to Impact Databank. The wine lineup also includes Chateau d’Esclans, Marques de Riscal, Blue Nun and Callaway. In spirits, the portfolio is mainly niche brands—including Gaetano Cordials, Old Smuggler Scotch, Pisco Capel and the Ron Barcelo, Pusser’s and Ron Viejo rum brands. At nearly half-a-million cases, Geikkekan will be Shaw-Ross’s largest specialty brand by far. “We’ve got a great group of wines, but nothing huge on the (specialty) side,” says Hunter. “That’s why Gekkeikan really adds something great to the portfolio.”

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