Bringing nihonshu into the mix

May 10th, 2011 by Felicity Hughes

Fancy a sake and tonic? The owners of Sake Hall Hibiya Bar are hoping the answer from young drinkers will be a hearty yes as they attempt to carve out a new niche in Japan’s crowded drinks market. The bar, which bills itself as the world’s first specialist sake cocktail bar, opened in Ginza on April 20 and is a collaboration between seven different sake brewers who are using the venture to raise the profile of the much-maligned sake cocktail.

Yep, that's what they call a sake bomb.

Though sake cocktails, such as the sake bomb, have made a splash overseas, the concept has yet to gain traction in Japan, according to Food Stadium. Many of the sake producers I spoke to at Foodex, a couple of years ago seemed to view the concept of mixing sake with anything as an aberration, but some were trying to run with the concept with a special stand serving cocktails shaken by bow-tied bartenders from snazzy silver shakers. This new venture is simply raising the profile of a campaign that has yet to gain momentum.

If they can pull it off, the rewards could be huge. Suntory’s campaign to promote the highball has brought the company a whole new generation of whiskey drinkers, who like the idea of whiskey as a sophisticated drink but are put off by the high alcohol content. Nihonshu suffers from the same image problem whiskey did years back: it’s perceived as both expensive and way too strong. Many young drinkers instead prefer to instead drink shochu with a mixer which allows them to enjoy the tipple without getting immediately smashed.

The SAKE nic (¥580) is at the forefront of Sake Hall Hibiya Bar’s campaign to reinvent sake in Japan: The drink is a blend of seven different sakes mixed with tonic and a sliver of orange peel, and is designed to be refreshing and zesty. Their other trademark drink is the Sake Espuma (¥630): sake blended with a special machine that gives the drink a beer-like frothy head. In addition to offering 150 types of sake cocktails, the bar is covering its bases by also offering classic spirit-based cocktails, whiskey and beer.

But a small band of sake producers don’t have the advertising clout that a huge company like Suntory possesses, so even if they can get people drinking these cocktails, it’s going to take awhile for the trend to take hold. In the hopes that trend will catch on elsewhere the bar will be holding sake cocktail workshops for restaurateurs and other promotional events.

Can sake shake off its old geezer image and get with younger drinkers? The owners of Sake Hall Hibiya Bar have certainly got their work cut out for them. According to C Scout, a 2009 survey of women aged 20-30 showed that 75 percent of them hardly ever drink nihonshu and that’s just the demographic they’re aiming to turn around.

Photo: Marcelo Teson

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