It’s been said that Sake has an image problem.
In Japan, sake’s image has long been one of an “old man’s drink,” but there has been a quiet revolution brewing. In just a few short years, great strides have been made to broaden the appeal of Japan’s National Beverage and places like Liquor Innovations’ Kurand Sake Market have been leading the charge.
Kurand’s establishments try to provide an easygoing environment with informative labeling that appeals to the sake novice, while keeping a constantly rotating inventory of over 100 different labels to keep the seasoned sake drinker engaged. For 3240 Yen (about $30 USD), guests are welcome to try as many different labels as they wish, for as long as they like.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Chris Hughes of Liquor Innovations to discuss his experiences and the future of KURAND.
The Sake Notes: What’s your role at Liquor Innovations? how did you get involved?
Chris Hughes: Just a quick recap if I may on how I ended up in Japan working in this industry.
In short, I discovered sake in London. I was working for a Japanese food and drink importer / supplier at the time and then one day I was told to take part in a sake training. The brewery who hosted the training, Nanbu Bijin, Iwate Prefecture, stole my heart with their amazing story and sake. I think it was the fact that sake is steeped in all the elements of Japanese culture which I fell in love with that hooked me. I spent the next 4 years selling sake to Japanese restaurants in London investing my time personally in the beverage. During this time I got to meet brewers face to face and learn from them all about their craft first hand. In 2014, I decided to come to Japan to learn more about the beverage and if possible get a bit of experience working in the industry. After visiting around 74 breweries and a year working for a Tatenokawa Shuzo in Yamagata as their Tokyo sales rep — which included a bit of experience brewing — a friend introduced me to the CEO of KURAND. From the moment we met, there was a connection. We both wanted the same thing. With the Olympics in 2020, we knew that the number of foreign visitors to Japan would increase and that there would be an opportunity we would never have again to promote sake far and wide. And so, I joined up, first as a full-time employee, later switching to freelance to allow me to take on other sake related projects. My current role is Inbound PR. My job generally involves producing English sake related media (keeping the English language site updated), PR via SNS and running events and lessons to create new fans of the beverage.
“This new youthful take on the beverage offers opportunities that were never there before”
TSN: Tell us about Kurand. What is your strategy? How did the idea come about?
Hughes: The company behind KURAND, liquor innovation Ltd — who’s parent company is themselves a sake supplier that has been around since the early 1900s — had already been developing a rich database of customers via their sake subscription service — a service which they still run with over 1000 members in tow — and regular events in and around Tokyo. They had also been creating special sakes together with the breweries. The idea for the bars came about from the desire to provide a stage for the boutique breweries that they had partnered with to promote their wares and gain a foothold in Tokyo; something which up until then only the bigger breweries had achieved.
The first bar opened as part of a crowd funding project and subsequent openings have followed suit. The key-point is that KURAND had already established a very strong media presence and a fan-base which allowed them to quickly meet their crowd funding target; it also gave them their first customer portfolio. The KURAND ethos is that to actually be able to hear the story of the craftsperson and see their face makes sake taste more delicious. But above all, KURAND is about providing an experience. Another motivation for the not just the bars but all everything that KURAND has done since the start, is the new interest in sake among young people and the new crop of brewers who are tapping into it. This new youthful take on the beverage offers opportunities that were never there before. For example: an opportunity to rid the beverage of its old man image and repackage it as something trendy and cool. This is what KURAND have been trying to do from the start. The bars are really just an extension of the same goal: to provide new added value to sake in as many forms as possible; to revolutionize the world through sake.
Incidentally, our strategy to entice non-Japanese has been to take advantage of the power of word-of-mouth really. We have spent hardly any money on advertising; nearly all the PR has been done online, via SNS or through word of mouth marketing. This we believe is the modern way of setting up a business from scratch.
“A lot of the sake we stock are made by young brewers who can reach out to their age group with the sake that they brew”
TSN: The crowd at Kurand tends to be younger than what we often see in sake bars and izakayas in Tokyo. We also see a lot of women at Kurand. what have you done to reach out to these non-traditional groups so successfully?
Chris: We have designed the selection of sakes around our target audience which is indeed young people. We have purposefully gone for sakes that tend to fall into the fruity sweet category and they are easier to palate than more traditional sakes. A lot of the sake we stock are made by young brewers who can reach out to their age group with the sake that they brew. We have also designed the bars to be trendy, cool and fashionable and designed a system which appeals to the complete sake beginner as opposed to the aficionado; although I think it appeals to both. I think it would be fair to say that even now there are still very few bars / companies that are doing the same thing.
TSN: Kurand has grown rapidly, going from one location to four in just over a year. Has Liquor Innovations had a road-map for this sort of expansion or did success take you by surprise?
Hughes: To an extent. The crowd funding strategy allows us to open bars quickly at little cost with a guaranteed customer portfolio from the outset. We don’t take this success for granted though. We are always trying to find new ways to reach out to new audiences and keep things fresh. The contents of our fridge are refreshed on a bi-monthly basis and new sakes are constantly devised, procured. The other important point is that we listen to feedback from our customers, so that we are always providing what they want.
“We are always trying to keep the events fresh and interesting.”
TSN: Kurand also sponsors SET (Sake Exchange Tokyo). Please tell us about SET, what goes on and what someone would expect from attending.
Hughes: SET is run via MEETUP. It currently has over 500 members who meet every Sunday and relax over a sake or two. The events are really just an extension of our all-you-can-taste setup but with a lecture and games and things thrown in. Sometimes, we switch the venue to the sake brewery and sometimes brewers themselves attend. We are always trying to keep the events fresh and interesting.
To cater for two different audiences: those which want to study about sake seriously and those which just want to have fun, we now run two separate strands: one which is basically just an international exchange party with sake… and a spot of bingo, and one with is more like a workshop with a professionally guided tasting of sake that are procured specially for the event.
TSN: Liquor Innovations has an offshoot of Kurand, located in Shibuya, called Shugar. What is Shugar’s concept?
Hughes: SHUGAR’s concept is simply to provide a different route to sake through sweeter fruitier beverages that are cunningly made with a base of sake. The strategy appears to be working; we have seen an influx of new fans to KURAND who all started with the liqueurs at SHUGAR.
TSN: What’s next for Kurand and Liquor Innovations?
Hughes: We hope to expand outside Japan and conquer the world through sake.
Kurand Sake Market has branches in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and Asakusa. For more information including addresses and reservation details, go to https://kurand.jp/en/sakemarket/