#28 From rock bottom to success? by Hiroshi SAKURAI
“Our only chance is abroad”
Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui passed away at the end of July of this year. He was someone special to me. We had started making our own sake in 1999, and on New Year's Day in 2000, we had made the first bottle of Dassai 23. Then we took this bottle to Taiwan for Mr. Lee Teng Hui to celebrate the New Year.
A Japanese person close to Mr. Lee Teng Hui had contacted me and said he wanted to enjoy Dassai during a New Year's party planned on the 3rd. This year, New Year's Day and the 2nd of January were on the weekend. Because customs were closed, it would never make it on time. So I had one of my staff carry the bottle and have him fly to Taiwan. After that, we officially started to sell Dassai in Taiwan in 2002: this was the start of our overseas expansion.
At first, we started to try and sell Dassai in a place called Lishen Beilu, where there are Japanese restaurants and bars. Because there were a lot of Japanese businessmen, familiar with Japanese sake, I thought it was selling well but I was wrong. They liked cheap sake, so they would not have Dassai. Little by little I developed new routes, and when I sold directly to Taiwanese people, Dassai started to be popular. That was a great experience for me, I learned that you can't sell sake unless you have local people try it, because the Japanese people living abroad will not buy it.
Next was New York, USA. In 2003, the Sake Export Council of Japan was holding an event in New York, so I participated. A local Japanese restaurant I met at the event introduced me to some wholesalers I could partner with. New York has had sake on its market for a long time, but because there wasn't a type of sake like Dassai, it soon became quite popular. At first, it was in Japanese restaurants, and then it spread to Italian and French restaurants as well.
When the spread of the COVID-19 started, its effects were tremendous. Both domestic and international sales had sharply dropped. I thought the company would go out of business. The only way to survive for us was to reduce our sake production. But if we did that, the amount of Yamada-Nishiki rice we used would be halved to about 4,000 tons a year, and the farmers would go bankrupt. So we decided to sell Yamada-Nishiki as edible rice through partners, through local liquor stores. We also started to make disinfectant (ethanol), also made from Yamada-Nishiki rice.
Right now, overseas demand is coming back. Domestic demand will not be good for a while yet. We have no choice but to shift our focus overseas - more than ever before.
A new sakagura was supposed to open in New York next year but has been pushed back a year. Still, our plans to start a local, US sake production have not changed. What we've been doing has been consistent: meeting new customers. That was the only way for us to survive as a company, and we will continue to do so.
There will be cultural differences, hardships... The wall we are facing might be tall, but we have no choice but to face it.
Thank you for reading!