Unlocking the Potential of Luxury Sake

Mineaki Saito joined SAKE HUNDRED as a brand advisor in 2020.

Saito’s inclusion to the team is significant. As former President and CEO of Hermès Japan and Vice President of Hermès’ headquarters in France, Saito knows a thing or two about the world of luxury brands.

With SAKE HUNDRED brand owner Ryuji Ikoma plotting a new course in sake luxury, Saito’s pick as a brand advisor is both fitting and fortuitous. We listened in on a conversation between these two pioneers on the topic of luxury brands and unlocking sake’s luxury potential:

Consumers Create Brands

Saito: A brand is really a thing that consumers sort of superimpose onto their dreams. It supports those dreams, and becomes a calling card for identity. Over time, it comes to represent a customer’s ideas. When you boil it down, that’s what a brand is.

So it follows that, of course, brands have a responsibility. If a brand is acting in a way that doesn’t mesh with the values of its fans, that’s a betrayal of trust, and the brand will lose its credibility.

In that sense, a brand isn’t an island. Your fans have a hand in creating your brand. In a way, it lives through them.

Ikoma: We see it as a promise to our fans to embody those more intangible values, and a commitment to earning their trust. We’ve been working to exceed people’s expectations, so that when someone chooses SAKE HUNDRED, they already know they’re choosing a good product, and one that’s going to deliver unforgettable experiences.

Saito: SAKE HUNDRED is, at this point, about two years old, right? Seeing as I just came on board, I'd be keen to hear more about those first two years.

Ikoma: From the beginning, we’ve worked diligently to be honest and genuine with our consumers. But during those first two years, we were also reflecting on who we are, and what value we deliver to people who choose SAKE HUNDRED. Just like you were saying, you should never betray your customers’ values. And to deliver that kind of integrity, we need to have a sincere understanding of who we are and what we stand for. So, we spent a large part of those initial two years coming to understand ourselves.

The work’s still not done of course. But we’ve done a lot in the meantime to connect our own identity and our values with our branding.

Saito: So now we’re in this important phase of figuring out how to convey our values to consumers. That can be a balancing act. If you’re not communicating enough, fans will be left in the dark. But if you’re talking too much, it can come off as forced. Brands are like books in that way: You have to provide enough information, but also leave space for the reader to use their own imagination.

You’ve got to get things across with, of course, your products, but also through the website, packaging, customer support, that kind of thing, to get your values across. And what you’re writing and saying to the customer is something you need to honor. That’s a brand’s responsibility.

What Makes Luxury?

Saito: The whole idea of luxury was born in aristocratic cultures. The concept developed as a symbol of abundance and comfort. In Japan, for example, the aristocracy were playing karuta card games and making haiku while the less well-off were scraping by toiling in fields. The rich were living the ultimate extravagant life.

Luxury brands then developed out of these exclusive items that the rich enjoyed, and later became emblems of that type of extravagant lifestyle. Hermès has its roots here, too.

Ikoma: So, what you’re saying is, I think, that luxury brands weren’t necessarily born with inherent value. It instead developed over time as people came to understand who these brands were. I certainly think that time, and communities understanding your values, are necessities for luxury brands to develop. Saito-san, what do you think? What makes luxury?

Saito: If there’s a physical item — if your brand requires some kind of manufacturing process — being very discerning about the product and delivering quality is of utmost importance. But with sake, I don’t think that alone is enough. There is already plenty of high quality sake being sold at a high price point out there.

Ikoma: That’s actually one of the issues that inspired us to bring SAKE HUNDRED into the world. There’s plenty of high quality sake that doesn’t cost a lot. Then recently, you’re seeing a glut of high quality sake with a high price tag. These are premium products that can cost hundreds of dollars. But this is turning premium sake into a commodity. That’s the issue that SAKE HUNDRED is taking a swing at.

Sake’s Potential and the Fight for Luxury Status

Saito: For sake to move to the next level and really be accepted as a luxury item, it needs to bring something new to the table. It needs to inspire confidence and align with lifestyles.

Ikoma: Right. Really, at this moment in time, sake isn’t really offering the type of value that people can hang their dreams on; the type of value that represents a lifestyle. When sake brands are trying to depict their value, they’re inevitably starting and ending with how the sake was made.

That background informed SAKE HUNDRED’s tagline: “Fill Your Glass of Life.” It expresses our worldview and our promise of an enriched lifestyle. It’s not just about flavor. It’s a promise luxury brands uniquely bring to the table.

Saito: I also believe that sake has unique potential in that regard. It’s synonymous with what people love about Japanese culture. There’s a culture in the western world of taking things and turning them into beautiful art. In Japan, we have a tendency to turn to nature and find beauty there. Sake is very emblematic of that: It’s taking just two ingredients found in nature — water and rice — and molding them into something amazing. To me, that really represents the appeal of Japan.

Ikoma: There’s certainly a luxury space that sake alone can occupy.

Saito: Exactly. I believe also that the entire concept of luxury will change. It won’t simply be about the material product. People are going to want depth, something with roots. They’re going to want, almost, a spiritual experience. Perhaps that’s one reason, for example, that Japanese architects are highly regarded worldwide: They bring design that’s deep because it’s simple, and that also tells a profound story.

In the world of sake, no one has attempted the “luxury sake” approach. Someone needs to go for it, because there’s so much potential there. Sake absolutely has the hallmarks of luxury. It has the potential to enrich people’s lives and it represents the values of an entire industry of people who live and breathe it.

SAKE HUNDRED could be the world’s first and foremost luxury sake brand, and I have high hopes it’s going to deliver!