When it comes to selling sake in the West, there’s a lot of debate about how best to present it to an audience who’re unfamiliar with it. From my own personal experience, I initially found it hard to categorise what sake is. The kanji symbols were intimidating, the brewing process was a mystery and the comparisons to wine left me feeling really confused!
To help make sake easier to understand, certain businesses have taken to working with breweries in Japan to rebrand their drinks and make them more accessible to a western audience. This phenomenon has become known as ‘white-labelled’ sake, in which a business will purchase the sake from a brewery and change it in some way.
What’s important to consider is the method in which this is carried out. Transparent brands will clearly indicate who the producer is, while others may not be so forthcoming. It’s a tricky landscape to navigate.
Let’s take a look at a few of the brands who’re repurposing nihonshu and putting the breweries they work with at the heart of the conversation.
Founded by Henry Sidel in 2005, Joto is a US-based sake brand that focuses on bridging the gap between Japanese culture and American drinking habits. The name translates to ‘highest level’ in Japanese, which reflects the brand’s purpose to tell the stories of the breweries Joto works with.
Collaborating with breweries such as Saiya, Eiko Fuji, Tajima and more, Joto offers its own branding on the bottles. All labels are featured in English and come with tasting notes to help consumers understand what they are paying for.
Some interesting collaborations include Joto’s Blue One, a junmai nigori produced in tandem with the Nakao Brewery, and a one cup Joto honjozo graffiti can from the Marumoto Brewery.
The one cup is a great example of bringing a western flair to sake. Created by the Japanese graffiti artist, Shiro, the label is eye-catching, contrasting old and new Japan side by side.
Sake is the kind of drink that crosses genres and mediums. DJ Richie Hawtin brought it over into the techno music scene with his ENTER.SAKE label, a boutique collection that Hawtin has personally curated.
ENTER.SAKE has simplistic packaging and is all about promoting the craftsmanship of the breweries. Hawtin works with sake brands from all over Japan, which include the likes of Heiwa Shuzo, Sookuu Shuzo, Harukasumi and many more.
Presenting nihonshu as an ultra-premium product is a good marketing approach if done in the right way and HeavenSake has gone all in with that route. Created by the renowned French cellar master Regis Camus, HeavenSake is the very first Franco-Japanese sake collaboration.
Camus chose to work with the Dassai and Urakasumi brands to create luxury products that could feature on the drink lists of high-end restaurants and bars all over the world. One example is the junmai daiginjo made in collaboration with Dassai, and is meant to be softer on the palate than other sake in the same category.
The junmai ginjo, crafted with the help of Urakasumi, is presented as having Riesling characteristics. It’s produced from a blend of Yamadanishiki, Toyonishiki and Kuranohana rice and bottled at 15%.
A more affordable release from HeavenSake is the junmai 12, created in collaboration with Konishi Shuzo. Bottled at 12%, this sake has savoury caramel notes, rounding off a versatile portfolio.
Whether it’s altering a name or changing a label, rebranding sake is an interesting technique for elevating the category. All the brands mentioned are passionate about sharing the stories of the producers and ensuring their hard work is recognised. It’s this kind of mutual love for the industry that will ensure sake continues to rise in the minds of consumers across the globe.