Seasonal Sake Programs
This one is especially for industry folks who want to start their own Sake Program, but there is plenty to learn from this if you are a consumer wanting to know what to look for, or why you can't find a particular Sake, so read on!
As of this posting in September, if you came here to find recommendations for your Autumn Sake Program the first tip is:
It's time to work on your Winter Sake Program.
I would never say "Give up," because your distributor might have leftover seasonal stock from a special order that was canceled or over-ordered something in anticipation of higher demand, but seasonal Sake is usually pre-ordered before the importer/distributor buy it from the brewery. If you do learn of some that are available, it does not necessarily reflect poorly on the Sake. Some seasonal Sake are so good, the distributor may confidently order extra. Or the salesmen making their rounds to businesses lack the knowledge or words needed to sell a great Sake effectively. Some consistent, craft Sake brands that offer seasonals include Shichida and Denshin.
What sets seasonal Sake apart? Craft Sake's production is rooted in Japan's climate and culture. Specifically, the fact that Sake brewing regions of Japan share a climate with four distinct seasons, and rice as a primary staple crop. Harvesting of rice begins at the end of September, which means rice farmers would have plenty of rice and potentially time off from farming to go work at the Sake breweries in the winter. This is also why World Sake Day is held on October 1st of each year, marking the beginning of a new year's Sake production work.
Depending on the style, Sake can take as little as a few weeks to brew, and so once the rice has been harvested, dried, and milled, freshly brewed, unaged Sake ("Shinshu", pronounced "Sheen Shoe") can be sold before the end of that same year. Most other seasonal varieties are aged into the following calendar year. These Sake are bottled and sold in the season they are associated with and brewed especially to pair with the dishes using ingredients specific to that season. For this reason, seasonal Sake is not only a naturally exciting "limited time offer" from a sales perspective, but it also enhances the flavors of season-specific dishes for a truly elevated, fine-dining experience. There are also multiple styles for each season, so theoretically, your Sake program could include some new seasonal Sake every month!
Often people ask "Can I still drink this Sake?" and the short answer is, "Open it. Try it. Decide for yourself." Ideally, like an IPA, Sake should be enjoyed as fresh as possible. All Sake indicate the month and year they are packaged and are intended for consumption within 12 months of that date. If you keep it refrigerated or in a cool, dark place, you may be able to enjoy the flavor beyond that, but waiting will only risk degrading the quality, not enhancing it. For seasonal offerings, the ingredients they are meant to pair with will go out of season, too.
This is why for restaurants, the time to research, order, and create menus and promotions for seasonal Sake is three months in advance. This may seem like a lot of lead time, but you only need to do it four times a year to maximize your Sake Program, and you can use the same selections next year. Three months gives you ample time to market these Sake, ensuring a timely sell-through of your inventory. It shows your customers that you care and put thought into the Sake you offer. It also helps your distributor plan their orders from Japan. Importantly, the more seasonal Sake programs there are in America, the harder these distributors will work to source more labels, giving you fresh new options to keep your customers engaged and coming back for more or revisiting last year's favorites!
Finally, if you can't be bothered, lack the time, know-how, or confidence, you can always hire me to create a tailor-made menu specific to your needs.