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Saké Sales Rise As Adventurous Consumers Branch Out

September 27, 2017

With consumers embracing new drinks options in recent years, domestic and imported saké consumption in the U.S. market reached an all-time high in 2016, according to Impact Databank, growing 3% to 2.3 million nine-liter cases.

“Saké is growing incredibly,” says Bruce Hunter, managing director at Shaw-Ross International Importers. The company became the exclusive U.S. importer for No.-2 brand Gekkeikan in January of last year. “It’s becoming more mainstream, whereas before it was relegated to Japanese restaurants,” Hunter notes. “The discerning drinker is turning to saké like they do wine.” Gekkeikan was down 5% in 2016 to 463,000 cases, according to Impact Databank, but still commands an impressive 20% of the overall category. Hunter expects case sales to increase 10% to 12% in 2017.

At Orlando, Florida–based retailer ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, wine consultant Dave Malone notes that although saké sales account for less than 1% of his sales, the category is trending in a positive direction. “I’ve seen the selection grow from just a few brands to over 20, with many additions falling in the premium segment. Most of our growth is in the premium 300-ml. to 375-ml. bottle sizes priced between $10 and $12.”

At Austin, Texas–based chain Twin Liquors, consumers are willing to spend more for premium sakés, according to wine manager Colin Groom, who says the sweet spot is $32.99. “The vast majority of people who come to buy specific brands have tried them in bars and restaurants, with an understanding that there are different quality levels, as well as styles meant to be consumed in a specific way,” Groom adds.

Importers and marketers are seeing the potential in saké. Last December, Kobrand Corp. entered the category with its acquisition of the Joto saké portfolio, which includes a dozen different brands. “We saw in Joto a turnkey solution to dive into the category,” says Kobrand president and CEO Bob DeRoose. “We’ve monitored the growth of Japanese cuisine and restaurants. The saké category is strong and continues to develop.” Joto’s lineup ranges from $19.99 a 720-ml. bottle to $199.99.

California-based importer Vine Connections has a wide saké portfolio ranging from the Tozai Typhoon Futsu ($14 a 720-ml.) to the Tentaka Silent Stream Junmai Daiginjo ($120). In June, the company introduced three new brands: Taka, Kawatsuru and Yamada Shoten. Sales were up 17% last year, with growth continuing so far this year. Davos Brands’ Ty Ku saké, meanwhile, has been adept at drawing younger consumers with its modern packaging and flavored expressions, which represent half of the brand’s on-premise sales, according to Davos vice president, marketing, Joen Choe.

“We’ve seen growing interest in specialty styles like flavored nigori and sparkling saké,” says Sam Geniella, sales manager for category leader Takara Sake USA. The company saw shipments grow 7.5% in 2016 to 570,000 cases, according to Impact Databank. “There’s also been a noticeable uptick in interest in saké on the shelves of supermarkets and grocery stores,” Geniella says, adding that Takara’s Sho Chiku Bai has seen strong growth in such mainstream channels lately.

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