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Saké Thriving On Growth In Asian Accounts, Influx Of New Consumers

October 22, 2014

As U.S. consumers broaden their drinking repertoires and explore more sophisticated taste profiles, saké producers have seen their opportunities multiply. Marketers of top saké brands say the category is now making inroads into the mainstream, while also benefiting from marked expansion in its core Asian restaurant account base.

Shipments of imported saké to the U.S. rose 13% in 2013 to 516,000 nine-liter cases, while depletions of domestically produced sakés advanced by 1% to 1.7 million cases. Top-selling brand Sho Chiku Bai, marketed by Takara Saké USA and commanding a 27% share of the category, continued its steady climb with a 1% rise to 587,000 cases last year, according to Impact Databank. Number-two brand Gekkeikan, handled by Sidney Frank Importing Co. (SFIC), grew by 3.2% to 450,000 cases. SFIC tells SND it expects Gekkeikan to reach 470,000 cases in 2014, with further growth projected for 2015 as saké gains in popularity with bartenders and consumers.

Oregon-based brewer and importer SakéOne is also bullish on the category. The company grew its volume 8.4% to 89,000 cases in 2013, and has bolstered its range with several new brands over the past year. In May, SakéOne was named the exclusive U.S. importer for Hakutsuru Saké Brewery Co., Ltd. which significantly upped its share of the premium saké market in the grocery channel. That agreement followed last year’s partnerships with Kasumi Tsuru and SakéMoto.

This month, Japan’s Kibo Saké linked with SakéOne to begin importing its line of premium canned Junmai saké (15.5% abv) to key coastal markets at about $6 a 180-ml. can. “Forty years ago, the number of saké breweries in Japan peaked at about 10,000. Now there are about 1,200,” explains SakéOne president and CEO Steve Vuylsteke. “With the decline in the Japanese market and breweries going out of business, the idea of exporting is becoming very important.”

New York’s Joto Saké, founded in 2005 by Henry Sidel, a veteran of Brooklyn Brewery and Millennium Imports, is also expanding from its modest base. Sidel says he expects his company, whose average bottle retails for $35 a 720-ml., to crest 20,000 cases this year. Following launches this fall in non-traditional saké markets like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, South Carolina and North Carolina, Joto plans to have a 40-state presence by year-end. On-premise accounts currently make up about 75% of the business, boosted by the growth in Asian and Asian fusion restaurants across the country. “The Japanese and Asian restaurant scene has exploded so much that just tackling that will keep any supplier busy,” Sidel says.

Another rising star, Hiro Saké—with its Junmai (Hiro Red) and Junmai Ginjo (Hiro Blue) sakés retailing at $29.99 and $39.99, respectively—added to its existing 13-state distribution footprint this month with entry into Arizona, and plans to expand into Illinois, Texas, Nevada and California over the next year. Hiro Saké co-founder and CEO Carlos Arana, formerly managing director of Jose Cuervo International, says the brand has been growing at triple digits, and he envisions considerable upside for the saké category as its leading brands continue to expand their profiles. “Today, other categories have very clear, differentiated brands, but with saké there is no clear brand there,” he says. “There’s a huge opportunity to develop a high-quality brand that consumers can order by name.”

Guillaume Cuvelier, vice chairman of Davos Brands, whose Ty Ku saké sells over 100,000 cases, likewise sees ample room for category expansion. “In the last year, the premium saké wave has been accelerating,” he says. “People are starting to include saké in their wine repertoire. It’s another option in the 12%- to 15%-abv segment.”

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