Ryuji Ikoma, Founder of Sake Hundred, on How Sake Changed His Life, and How He’s Changing Sake
Ryuji Ikoma is one of the greatest sake influencers and innovators on the planet and the owner of one of the industry’s most exciting and forward-thinking brands, Sake Hundred.
But, at just 37, he’s much younger than your average sake brew master or businessman. He speaks with youthful energy and his round glasses make him look studious and younger than his years. He wasn’t born into the industry like so many others, either, who often find themselves reluctantly taking the reins of crumbling family breweries as their elders age out of the workforce.
In fact, the man didn’t even like sake at first.
“I was born in a suburb of Tokyo. There were no sake makers in the area and sake had no part in my life,” Ikoma recalls. “Sake frankly scared me. All I knew about it at the time was that it’s strong and not very good.”
“I also can’t really drink much alcohol. I turn red,” Ikoma says.
It’s certainly a curious origin story for a man who would go on to launch Sake Times, Japan’s go-to sake information resource with thousands of articles, and Sake Hundred, a luxury sake brand that’s garnered awards worldwide and landed Ikoma in the pages of Forbes magazine as a leading sake innovator.
Giving Sake Another Shot
Ikoma only recalls a bad night and a worse hangover after his first encounter with sake. It was his second try that would ignite his passion for the drink.
“My friend, whose family ran a liquor shop, begged me to try sake again. He brought me a bottle of Kouro, from Kumamoto Prefecture, and that’s when I saw the light. It was mellow, balanced, its flavors were complex. It was simply magnificent,” Ikoma beams. “After that, I started to study sake, and realized that the more you learn about sake, the deeper the rabbit hole goes and the more interesting it gets.”
His newfound passion would eventually see Ikoma travelling to hundreds of breweries around the world and trying thousands of sake labels. It would guide him on a path to launching one of Japan’s only sake venture companies, and would even lead him to becoming a respected sake expert for the Japanese government.
Working for a Brighter Sake Future
The road to Ikoma’s success wasn’t without its challenges, though.
“When I first started going around to breweries to cover them for Sake Times, the people at these places didn’t trust me. And I don’t blame them. I was a completely new face in an industry that’s tight-knit and thousands of years old,” Ikoma says.
Before even getting Sake Times off the ground, Ikoma had to make ends meet working part-time jobs near minimum wage. What he scraped together would later go on to fund his own out-of-pocket trips to see sake in the making.
Eventually, Ikoma gained the trust of brewers and, as Sake Times’ readership ballooned into the hundreds of thousands, he found brewers coming to him. Suddenly, Ikoma wasn’t an outsider – he was a trusted source of sake knowledge, and brewers wanted his attention.
“When people started to see that my goal was to genuinely get people excited about sake, that I respected the art of sake, and that I truly wanted to learn as much as I could, they came around. Breweries wanted me to visit, and I also became the subject of interviews myself” Ikoma remembers.
Over time, Ikoma became a bottomless font of sake knowledge. But what’s knowledge without action? The next step in Ikoma’s journey was to put all he’d learned to use at Sake Times in further helping revitalize this industry he adored.
Ikoma decided to help the industry and secure a better future for it from the inside. Through this idea sprang Sake Hundred.
The Sake Hundred Dream to Change an Industry
Sake Hundred is a sake brand that promises drinkers the sake experience of a lifetime. Sake Hundred is designed to deliver products that “fill your heart and color your life,” as the brand’s ethos goes. Each label is meticulously planned and designed by Ikoma and the Sake Hundred team, who work with Japan’s most innovative and inspiring breweries to bring these designs into the world.
But Ikoma knew Sake Hundred’s higher price tags would be a major shakeup for the industry. He knew it could be a tough sell, but Ikoma says he believed too strongly in sake’s potential to settle for less.
“Over these ten years of visiting so many breweries, what really struck me was the craftsmanship involved. I tasted the brewing water. I spoke with the brew masters and the brewers. It was fascinating. From the largest brewers, down to the places run by one small family, I realized they were all craftspeople who wanted to make the best sake possible,” Ikoma says.
“Then, when I visited Hong Kong to cover a sake shop for Sake Times, I noticed they were selling a bottle of junmai daiginjo for something like US$4,000. It made me realize there are people all over the world who love sake enough to pay for the really good stuff.”
If this were the world of wine, Ikoma’s conclusion wouldn’t exactly have been an epiphany. People expect wine to command high prices. But sake is different. Even today, “standard” sake prices are rooted in old war-era government initiatives, Ikoma explains. The Japanese military needed money, and the government levied taxes on sake to go to the war effort. But they needed high volumes to net the most cash, so the government pressured the industry to sell their sake cheap.
Cheap sake became the norm, and even now sake makers have a hard time fighting the status quo. The whole industry has found itself in a hole without the option of raising prices to help dig itself out.
As a young, agile upstart, Ikoma hopes that Sake Hundred can break free from tradition and sell people on sake with price tags more commensurate to wine.
And it makes sense that high quality sake should have a seat at the table with pricey, high quality wines. After all, no less labor is expended in producing sake. Rice must be grown and cultivated without pesticides, natural water sources must be cared for and tended to, and the rice must be meticulously milled – a process that, as is the case with Sake Hundred’s Byakko family of labels that are polished to 18%, can take as many as 200 labor hours.
Making Better Communities with Sake
While Sake Hundred’s price tags may take some getting used to, Ikoma is genuine in his desire to revitalize the industry and make sake prices more pliable by working with brewers to create sake truly deserving of a higher price tag.
“Towns and villages used to spring up around sake breweries,” he says. “I hope that by helping the industry out of its slump, Sake Hundred can also have an indirect hand in making the towns around breweries more lively and prosperous.”
“I don’t want Sake Hundred’s goal to just be ‘make money’,” he continues. “It’s very important that our efforts lead to better outcomes for the makers, the brewers, the farmers, and the communities around them.”
Sake Hundred’s service to the community doesn’t end there. Clear Inc., the company behind the brand, is staffed by a near-even split of men and women, in an industry that is overwhelmingly male-dominated. Clear gives women opportunities in an industry that has historically rejected them, and takes their views into account, providing for diverse perspectives in delivering sake to consumers.
Meanwhile, Sake Hundred is also committed to sustainable brewing. The brand’s often astonishingly high polish ratios lead to ,more pure sake, but also to vast amounts of discarded rice husks that don’t make it into the final product. Sake Hundred’s brewers recycle these scraps into animal feed, rice crackers and other useful products.
Coming to America
It’s safe to say that Sake Hundred is an enormous success in Japan, with sales of over 3.5 billion yen (approx. US$25.2 million at time of writing) in four years. Now, the brand is setting its sights on bringing great sake to American hotels, restaurants, and homes, in the hopes of giving sake a place with the other great alcoholic drinks on American palates.
“I want Americans to experience sake in the same way they experience wine,” Ikoma says. “I believe that great sake can broaden and enrich the world of American drinking culture.”
If anyone can make it work, it’s Ryuji Ikoma.
After all, despite not looking the part, and his late introduction to sake, Ikoma may have just been destined for this job all along:
In his hometown of Fuchu, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Ikoma recalls visiting Ookunitama Shrine every New Year’s with his family as a kid. The young Ikoma had no way of knowing at the time, but Ookunitama Shrine is dedicated to the God of sake.
“I go to pray to the sake gods every year now,” Ikoma grins.