In December 2007, Rick Smith and Hiroko Furukawa opened what is to this day the East Coast's only store dedicated entirely to sake. But they weren't always sake's biggest fans.
Rick, who held a ten year tenure as Associate Publisher of Food & Wine, had his first sake epiphany in late 2000, during a company dinner at Jewel Bako. After initially resisting proprietor Jack Lamb's suggestion to pair his meal with premium sakes, Rick gave in and his eyes were opened to a world completely different from the "jet fuel" sake he'd tried before.
Although Hiroko was born and raised in Japan, she didn't fall in love with premium sake until she went to New York's temple of sake, Sakagura. Hiroko and Rick met shortly thereafter, and their shared passion for premium sake eventually led them to open Sakaya.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Rick and Hiroko about their reasons for getting into this business, customer observations, and much more.
What made you decide to open a sake store?
We often found ourselves trekking to New Jersey to buy sake at Mitsuwa, and visiting the many wine stores around the city with interesting sake selections, but we still felt like we weren't getting the true variety and selection we desired. We were further inspired by visiting True Sake in Northern California (the first sake store in the US) and talking with Beau Timken, proprietor and sake aficionado. We felt that if San Francisco, with one tenth of NYC's population, could sustain a sake store, then we definitely had a shot as well.
Do you feel that there are any categories or price ranges missing in what's available in NY?
We're fortunate to have an excellent variety of sakes in many price ranges in NY. We do sometimes feel that it's tough to turn people on to sake due to the price gap between bulk sake and premium sake; however, although we make an effort to offer sake in a more approachable price range, we consistently see that our best sellers are sakes in the higher end categories.
What is your advice for a beginner who wants to learn about sake?
Try lots of different sake and take notes on each one. Writing down your thoughts requires concentration on the sake's characteristics, which tends to ingrain the sake in your memory. As you build a body of experience, familiarity with styles, rice, and yeasts will begin to take form in your mind. We also recommend reading John Gauntner's The Sake Handbook as a foundation or framework to use as the basis for sake exploration. And check out our website!
Do you feel that your customers' level of familiarity with sake has grown over the years?
Absolutely. Our longtime customers have identified the styles they like after trying a bunch over time, and that greatly increases their confidence in selecting sakes. Also, lately people are walking in the door, pulling out their phones and showing us photos of sake they've had in restaurants, or have typed the names of sakes into their Blackberrys. This attention is a great sign that people are starting to take sake more seriously.
What style of sake do you recommend to new sake drinkers?
We try to match the style to the drinker's taste preferences, so for us, there really isn't one all-encompassing answer to this question. Since everyone has different taste, there isn't really a "one-size fits all" sake.
What are some frustrations that you've had about the sake market in the US?
Despite the increasing enthusiasm of sake drinkers, sake still isn't an 'everyday drink' for most people. We see people who probably go through a case of wine every week in their household, who will only ever pick up a bottle of sake for special occasions.
People also seem limited in their expectations of sake's versatility. So many people still think that sake can only be enjoyed with sushi. At Sakaya we make a big effort in our shelf talkers to recommend food pairings outside of just sushi—anything from cheeses to Bolognese sauces.
How do you see the sake business changing in the next 10 years or so?
We think there is great potential for growth. Premium sake in the U.S. is at a similar stage to where wine was about 20 years ago—back then, people knew very little about wine aside from the fact that there was red and white. As premium wines became more widely available, drinkers became interested in the differences between them and sought more information about where they came from. We see a similar learning curve for premium sake.
What have been some of the challenges and surprises for you during your time owning Sakaya?
Since neither of us had any business start-up or retail experience, everything was a challenge at first (and continues to be)! It has been round-the-clock and all-consuming and we've learned so much along the way. Fortunately we've had some wonderful people who shared the benefit of their experience with us. We didn't know what to expect but relied on our instincts and thank goodness, that seems to have kept us growing steadily since day one. Surprises? I would say that we're pleasantly surprised at the level of enthusiasm and degree to which people have embraced the shop. We're also tremendously happy about the excitement that the sake brewers have shown in their support of SAKAYA. Their visits to our shop, hosting us at their breweries, and year round communication with us are essential to our ability to provide our customers with a greater depth of understanding of what goes into producing the sake that we carry.
What is the most adventurous sake and food pairing that you've done lately? Kagatobi Junmai Ginjo with dark chocolate. This sake has a great nuttiness and acidity, and the rich texture that really matches the intensity and nuttiness of dark chocolate.
What are some of the most popular styles of sake at Sakaya? Definitely bold, intense, fruity styles of sakes like namazake (unpasteurized sakes) and genshu (undiluted, higher alcohol sakes). Probably second after that would be soft, elegant, very easy drinking sakes.
Are there any programs you offer at the store to give people an ongoing sake education?
We offer America's first "Sake of the Month" tasting club. We focus on a different sake theme every month, and offer six sakes in that genre to members of our mailing list. Each focus is a basic principle that we are working on educating people on, such as sake to match with grilled dishes for the summer, comparative tastings of different types of sake rice, East v. West, etc.
Along with the sakes we include information about each one, including background on the yeast, rice, SMV, and alcohol, along with serving and pairing suggestions. It's very flexible: people can opt in each month, and there is an option to try 2, 4, or 6 different sakes. We try to keep each pair of sake under $80 total so that it stays fairly affordable. We also deliver—so it's a great way to get a feel of what we're about if you're not close enough to stop by in person!