This article first appeared in Texas Lifestyle Magazine on April 29, 2019.
Marc Smookler founded Sake Social in 2009 after taking his first sip of premium sake at a sushi restaurant and struggling to find a bottle of similar quality anywhere else.
Truth be told, the Austin-based entrepreneur is co-founder of six companies, two of which have been acquired and four of which are considered market leaders within their respective industries. But Smookler took his biggest leap of faith when he established the online retail shop Sake Social. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, it’s clear Smookler’s gamble on filling a void in the sake market has paid off.
After searching at various sushi restaurants, specialty wine shops, online spirits retailers and premium grocers around town, Smookler discovered how difficult it is to acquire a bottle of premium sake or even find any information about the numerous varieties of the popular Japanese rice wine that exist. Then, after a trip to Japan and a private tour at a sake brewery, Smookler found his inspiration and decided it was time to start his fourth business venture. Sake Social was born.
Smookler learned that good sake is derived from quality ingredients and a quality process. Since focusing on both, his company has gone on to become the largest online retailer of Japanese sake, as well as a vast educational resource for sake novices and an online community for sake enthusiasts to exchange their thoughts on different brews.
“I was shocked at how something like sake, which is so central to the culture of one industrialized country, is such a mystery outside of the neighborhood Japanese restaurant in the U.S.,” says Mark Smookler.
What went into creating Sake Social?
I have taken what I thought are the biggest barriers to American consumers buying sake and worked hard to overcome them. Namely, helping consumers find what sake brews best suit their palate and providing a community where others can share their thoughts, reviews and suggestions.
What goes into making sake?
Many variables, like what type of rice is used and how it is then milled, the water, the brewing method, the type of yeast used, the bottling process, and how long it takes to get to market, all have an impact on the science behind making sake. Unlike wine, sake does not get better with age. Just the opposite. Because of a lack of preservatives and chemicals, sake starts to dramatically change its flavor profile after roughly six months. There is both an art and science in brewing sake—with some recipes dating back more than 600 years.
What separates good sake from bad?
As with most things in life, the higher the quality of the ingredients, the higher quality the end product. Also, a big part of the quality on the delivery of sake comes from the art of brewing. The better the toji (master sake brewer), the better the end result.
Why is buying premium sake difficult?
Well, first and foremost, premium sake is still trying to get a foothold outside of its traditional channel—Japanese restaurants. There are some barriers to wider adoption, most importantly, the cost of bringing premium Japanese sake to the U.S. makes it hard to break into the masses.
How does an online consumer choose a sake from Sake Social?
We have several ways that people can choose the right bottle of sake for them. We have a powerful filter that can help them find the right bottles of sake based on variables like taste profile (sweet versus dry, acidity, body etc.), price, food pairings, and even event types. And, if that all fails, we have a curated Sake of the Month Club where we select two brews each month that we ship, at a discount, to all of our members—think of it as going on a sake tasting adventure.
What are your favorite sakes?
My current favorite sake, both taste and visually, is Miyosakae Tenmi. One of our importers sent me a bottle almost two years ago and it immediately became my favorite. My second favorite brew right now is Ozeki Jyudan Jikomi. It has a nice fruity flavor, velvety texture and doesn’t have any additives, sulfites or preservatives.
In addition to running Sake Social, Smookler is the co-founder of IdealSpot, Written.com and VidGrid. Smookler is also an active mentor at Capital Factory and TechStars in Austin, where he helps guide other aspiring local entrepreneurs to success.