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  SakéOne Corp.
drunk on potential
by Abram D. Sauer
October 15, 2001

One needn’t be a veteran tosspot to be versed in the available brands of alcoholic drink. Even the driest teetotalers would surely be capable of naming at least one brand for each alcoholic species; Absolut vodka, Jose Cuervo tequila, Jack Daniels, etc. Yet, an experienced barman would be hard pressed to come up with a brand name saké. In the US$ 60 million American market for the Japanese hooch, it is precisely this lack of an identifiable brand name that drives SakéOne Corp. and its renaissance samurai CEO, Grif Frost.

SakéOne was incorporated in Oregon in 1992 under the antiquated moniker Japan America Beverage Company (JABC). In 1998, JABC changed its name to SakéOne with a significant debt to equity conversion with its Japanese partner, Momokawa Saké of Japan. SakéOne’s break from big-brother brewer Momokawa was somewhat dysfunctional, though SakéOne maintains the Momokawa brand for its stateside product. Notably, SakéOne is the only premium company in the US$ 10 billion worldwide saké industry that makes its shares available to individual and institutional investors. The corporation currently has approximately 550 (mostly local) shareholders.

Despite its product’s foreign origin, SakéOne hypes its outsider status, reveling in the disapproval lumped on it from old codger traditionalists in Japan. SakéOne focuses most of its PR energies on its award-winning Oregon sakéry, where, under the Momokawa, Y Daiginjo and Moonstone brands, it produces cobalt blue bottles containing 12 different sakés in new-age flavors such as Wind, Sky, Snow and Pearl.

At its Oregon headquarters, SakéOne conducts tours of the facilities and maintains a serene tasting room replete with Zennish tasting manager. It is here that the corporation orchestrates its multi-pronged marketing and promotional campaign, including online, restaurant and retail sales as well as developing exclusive brands for select retailers and creative bottle designs capturing the brand’s oddball individuality.

Year 2000 receipts totaling US$ 2.2 million established SakéOne as the ninth-largest, and fastest growing, winery in Oregon. The brand’s blueprints for increasing those numbers include recent exclusivity nuptials with Roy’s Restaurant namesake Roy Yamaguchi and a devil-may-care amount of confidence in its own cocksure Thunderbird-alum CEO Grif Frost. In his own words, Frost schemes to “control 25 percent of the American saké market, and then double the market.”

Where SakéOne ends and the Frost mythos begins seems indistinguishable; it is almost as if Frost believes that he himself invented saké. Cleary drunk on potential, Frost appears to be hell-bent on getting America to accept the Japanese rice-wine beverage. At every opportunity, saké consumption statistics – some solid, some predicted, some hoped for – flow forth from Frost. He has written a book on saké appreciation and conducts as many as 90 saké seminars a year around the US. Give him an ear and Frost will tell you that saké is “brewed like a beer, but served like a wine” or that “I have a bottle of the Momokawa Diamond every night.” SakéOne’s press-release-imbued website goes so far as to state that CEO-sage Grif Frost “lives for saké…drinks it…cooks with it…bathes in it. Grif is nothing less than the World Ambassador of saké."

As the leading distributor of saké in the United States, it would be surprising only to the chowderheaded that SakéOne would want to make a play for that coveted top shelf; that not-so-humble elevated abode of premium brands for which bartenders must stretch. And, Momokawa Saké has been made in one form or another since 1856, a useful “bottled since” legacy for any alcohol seeking market legitimacy. Grif and SakéOne also appear to be aware of – and in good position to take advantage of – the swelling popularity outside of Asia of all things Asian.

The arena of alcohol branding has always been barbarously brutal. Victorious brands reap both fame and monetary spoils while also-rans become, at best, discount brown-bag filler and, at worst, running industry humor. Changing America’s perfunctory alcohol ordering habits can be a thankless and seemingly impossible task. Many have tried and many have wound up muttering “I coulda’ been a contender.” Saké’s crossover appeal has always been a little short of absolut (pun intended), and to be successful SakéOne will first have to overcome the drink’s psychological banishment to Japanese restaurants and its damning association with heat. This latter roadblock is a remarkably prominent target of Frost’s crusade, as he takes every opportunity to make it known that saké is, in fact, better consumed cold. So far, SakéOne has been getting the sort of exposure it needs, having been featured in Playboy, Men’s Fitness, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Glamour, Stuff, and Lucky.

To SakéOne’s advantage, American tipplers are always looking for the next vogue cri de coeur. It would only require a Promethean ad campaign (á la Absolut) or the popular “Sex and the City” women to start ordering “sakétinis” to do for saké what has already been done for the (previously farcical) apple martini.


Abram D. Sauer is a writer currently living in New York. He was a columnist for The China Daily while living in Beijing and is co-founder of

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