Sake is a beautiful beverage. It’s one of the world’s most historic; elegant, intellectual, and broad-spanning, with styles ranging from textured and milky to comparing to some of the world’s finest wines.
But American drinkers are still a little confused about sake. Some consider it a wine (it’s brewed, technically, though nothing like beer), others think it should be heated up on the stove and served warm (it mostly shouldn’t).
One company is trying to introduce sake to the Western crowd, making ready-to-drink style sakes alongside collaborative bottles with some of Japan’s most iconic bottlings.
Founded by beverage industry vets Billy Melnyk and Dan Rubinoff, SOTO Sake was started after the duo saw a glaring gap in the American beverage market – a complete lack of sake brands catering to US drinks and an opportunity to lead the category forward. Since inception, the brand has been focusing on a single branded sake and small ready-to-drink formats of canned sake.
Recently, the brand launched a new project — a line of bottled collaborations with a range of iconic Japanese sake producers. First up, an exclusive sake with Tomonobu Mitobe of Yamagata Masamune’s over 100-year-old Mitobe Sake Brewery. The Junmai Daiginjo bottling is pulled from a single tank and made with heavily polished ancient Omachi rice, Japan’s oldest sake heirloom strain.
Yamagata Masamune is iconic in Japan — embodying exquisite quality (think Japan’s answer to and only holding shelf space in the world’s best sake spaces. “There’s been no shortage of requests from customers and consumers for more SOTO products and Japanese brewers are consistently reaching out to SOTO about opportunities,” says Michael Tremblay, a James Beard Award-winning author and sake expert who consulted on the project. But the group started by approaching their bucket list breweries to collaborate with.
“When Billy and I initially started visiting Japan, it was incredibly challenging at first to get our foot in the door to book meetings with sake breweries, some of which are hundreds of years old and have a tremendous legacy,” says SOTO Sake Co-Founder Dan Rubinoff. “Reputation and relationships are essential in that space. It took time and plenty of planes, trains, and automobiles to find the right breweries, and even more time to gain their respect and trust. Now, breweries are even approaching us and courting us to assist with their common goal of gaining more global customers and sharing sakes that pair well with all types of cuisine.”
Together with Yamagata Masamune, they worked on the perfect cuvee, bottled in crown top bottles, set it up with SOTO’s design sensibilities, and set the bottle out to the market, coaxing in drinkers who love the design and good wine to consider sake.
“With each subsequent release a new limited-edition bottle of sake will be available, allowing SOTO to work with different sake makers, along with artisans and packaging designers, to savor and celebrate a liquid masterpiece before it vanishes, and then start work on the next incarnation with a new brewer,” says Rubinoff.
“It’s an exciting time for the sake category, particularly in North America where we are experiencing a ‘sake boom’ as popularity and awareness are soaring,” says Melnyk. Between 2012 and 2022, Japanese sake exports doubled in volume, expanding from 14 million liters a year to nearly 36 million. Price in the category has grown alongside with volume. The average export price per liter has doubled over the last ten years, with trends pointing to a continuous increase.
“It’s the convergence of several aspects working together at the same time; the growth of Japanese food and sushi restaurants across the globe, the increased focus on healthier eating and drinking by the consumer, and chefs across non-Japanese restaurants welcoming sake in their restaurants to complement their food,” he continues.
Sake is perfectly poised to fall in line with the low-ABV and ready-to-drink movements, and Tremblay is finding it has legs in the mixology space. “With the rise in low-ABV (alcohol-by-volume) products and cocktails, SOTO is also being used as the base ingredient in Martinis, Bloody Marys, and in Signature Cocktails developed by bartenders across the SOTO restaurant community.”
The single-serving format also coaxes in the non-commital drinkers — the ones who didn’t want to pruchse a full bottle of sake and rather take a chance on a canned ready-to-drink. It’s been helping to indoctrinate new drinkers into the sake category. “Influenced by Japan’s crazy vending machine culture, the packaging allows consumers to carry sake on the train, to the beach, and on the water,” says Melnyk. “The SOTO Junmai can is perfect for fast-casual restaurants and for take-out and delivery programs. This packaging has served us well as an amazing recruitment vehicle, bringing new consumers to the category.”